What do you think this is that washes up on California beaches in droves? Here is another view from the top.
So What Is It?
I had that question several years ago. I kept finding these while beachcombing in Northern California. Not one here and there, but multitudes. One day I found 14 of them (!). Family and friends puzzled with me about what they could be. Some thought they were vase inserts to hold flowers or the piece that holds a torch to the bamboo stick, you know, like on Gilligan’s island, all having spilled into the ocean and washed ashore after a shipping container fell overboard…
A friend knew researcher Curtis Ebbesmeyer from the University of Washington School of Oceanography, and he solved the mystery. Dr. Ebbesmeyer is now retired. He is known for studying ocean currents using marine flotsam data and for studying the plastic burden in the ocean.
Trap Doors to Giant Kegs
These are trap doors to giant kegs that are anchored off the California and Oregon coasts. The kegs are hagfish traps. The hagfish is an ugly bottom-feeding scavenger that performs the critical task of cleaning the ocean of dead carcasses. The hagfish is able to slither through the trap door to get to the bait in the keg, but once inside it cannot wriggle out past the frilly plastic fronds that you see at the end of the cone-shaped trap door.
Because the hagfish traps often break away from their moorings during rough seas, the trap doors are held to the kegs with a biodegradable material that eventually decomposes, keeping the kegs from continuing to ghost fish once adrift. I’ve highlighted them with arrows in the picture below.
The picture above is taken from this video of the Viking Sunrise retrieving hagfish kegs from their long lines out of Ucluelet, off the coast of British Columbia. You can see a second cone-shaped trap door protruding from the bottom of the lid when the keg is opened.
What is that sticky material that the fishermen are throwing overboard?
The hagfish is also known as the slime eel. When threatened, the hagfish produces a material containing mucin and fiber that expands in sea water. And yes, human snot contains mucin. Egg whites also contain mucoproteins. Notice how the fishermen need to remove the hagfish slime before storing the live hagfish below deck in order to keep the hagfish from suffocating in their own mucus. Interestingly, to remove their own slime from their bodies, hagfish will tie themselves in a knot and then work the knot all the way down their bodies in order to scrape the slime away.
A South Korean Delicacy
The hagfish in the previous video are destined for the South Korean live fish market, although there is also a thriving frozen hagfish market in Korea. Hagfish is considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac in South Korea, and is served in a classic dish known as komjangeo. Demand for the fish, described as tasting like clams, is so high that it costs $20 per pound in some restaurants. Here is a video of that dish being prepared. A warning to the squeamish. The dish is still moving as it is being cooked…
Apparently, the slime itself is also used in Korean cooking. The live hagfish in tanks are irritated by prodding the hagfish and their tank with a stick, causing them to produce a large amount of slime. The slime is then used in a similar manner as egg whites.
Hagfish on Your Feet, Around Your Waist and in Your Back Pocket
Due to high demand, the South Koreans have decimated their hagfish fishery, and so now they, and fishermen from the US and other nations are fishing for hagfish off our Pacific and Atlantic coasts. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, fishing for hagfish began off the Oregon coast in October 1988 with two vessels catching a total of 25,729 pounds. By 2010 that amount had exploded to 1.79 million pounds. Just over 2 million pounds were caught in 2011 and 1.54 million pounds in 2012.
Not only does the American hagfish fishery supply the Koreans with their tasty “eel,” the skins from the frozen hagfish trade are shipped to China where they are tanned and turned into high priced “eel skin” wallets, purses, belts and boots for, you guessed it, you the online and department store shopper. Little did you realize, that the high-end eel skin wallet that you bought is really a hagfish wallet.
They wouldn’t be as appealing if they were called “hagfish skin” wallets, would they? 🙂
You may not care that such an ugly creature was completely fished out in South Korea and is being heavily fished on our Pacific and Atlantic coasts, but hagfish are necessary to clean the oceans of carcasses and form a vital part of the ocean ecosystem.
And now they are being studied by material scientists who are hoping to replicate the molecular structure of the fibers in hagfish slime to create