By Virginia M. Wright
From our April 2023 Animals issue
The first time Vinalhaven lobsterboat captain Frank Thompson trapped hagfish in the Gulf of Maine, the pinkish-gray, snakelike animals popped the hatch off his hold — with their slime. When stressed or attacked, a single 20-inch-long hagfish spews a quart of stringy, suffocating snot in less than a second, and the stuff rapidly expands as it mixes with seawater. It was May 2009, and Thompson’s 48-foot boat was carrying 2,800 pounds of hagfish — that’s roughly 5,000 fish oozing copious slime from their skins. Unable to escape their own goop, many of the fish were dead when Thompson unloaded his catch in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Hagfish — or slime eels, in fisherman’s parlance — may be the most repulsive animals in the sea, and not only because of the slime. They’re hideous to begin with, with a single nostril between tiny sightless eyes and a mouth that pulls open like drapes to reveal a bubblegum-pink “tongue,” studded with four rows of sharp, rasping teeth. Gruesome feeders, they burrow into the orifices of dead, dying, and live gillnetted fish and eat them from the inside out. Their leftovers turn up in Maine fishermen’s nets as ghostly balloons — hollowed-out cod and haddock skins bloated with seawater.
Hagfish are apparently tasty, however. In South Korea, the primary market for hagfish, street vendors skin the creatures alive and throw them, writhing, onto hot grills. Served with a fiery red-pepper sauce, gomjangeo is mild, chewy, and reputedly a boost for male mojo. South Korean tanners use the scaleless skins to make supple yet durable “eel leather” wallets.
Left: photo by Stacia Sower. Right: photo by dirtsailor2003, via Flickr (Creative Commons).
Hagfish aren’t eels, though, and some marine biologists don’t even consider them to be true fishes because they have no vertebrae and only a partial skull — the only animals in the world with that skeletal structure. They share ancient roots with lampreys and have barely changed in 300 million years. Atlantic hagfish, one of about 80 species worldwide, scavenge on the Gulf of Maine’s cold, dark, muddy floor. Local fishermen largely ignored them until the 1990s, when depleted stocks in Asian waters prompted South Korean buyers to cast a wider net. Several Maine lobstermen, including Frank Thompson, started “eeling” in their off-season, deploying lines of 20 to 40 plastic drums equipped with one-way entrance funnels and baited with smelly dead fish.
After their first viscous venture, Thompson and his crew learned that if they hauled traps with minimal jostling, they could avoid triggering the wrigglers’ hyperactive slime glands. He and most of his peers quit eeling after a few years, however, because of declining prices and buyers’ preference for fish frozen at sea. Maine’s hagfish fishery peaked with just under 20 boats in the 2010s, according to an informal survey by the Island Institute publication Working Waterfront; today, three boats are sporadically active in the fishery, says Robert Watts, the commercial-landings program director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “I wouldn’t classify it as really happening.” No stats are available because confidentiality laws prohibit DMR from disclosing data when a fishery has three or fewer participants.
Left: photo courtesy of Gulf of Maine, Inc. Right: photo by ffennema, via iStock.
Pembroke-based Gulf of Maine, Inc., which sells live, frozen, and preserved sea organisms to research labs and science classrooms around the country, has recently seen an uptick in requests for hagfish specimens. Owner Tim Sheehan, himself a marine biologist, isn’t always informed of his buyers’ intentions, but scientists of various disciplines have studied seemingly everything about hagfish, from the baggy skin that allows them to slip their organs away from an attacker’s bite to the way they knot themselves into pretzels to torque flesh from a carcass (hagfish are jawless) to the five zombie hearts that can beat up to 36 hours without oxygen (a human heart, by contrast, is damaged within a few minutes of oxygen deprivation).
Even the slime, which protects hagfish by instantly clogging attackers’ gills and mouths, intrigues. Composed of mucus and skeins of protein threads that become stronger and tougher as they are stretched, hagfish slime is currently the focus of Navy researchers who hope to create a synthetic version for use as anti-shark spray or bulletproof fabric.
About a decade ago, Sheehan was buying hagfish by the thousands from some of the down east fishermen who supplied the now-closed Cherry Point Products, in Milbridge, a processor of urchins, sea cucumbers, and slime eels for Asian markets. The four Sheehan kids would try to make themselves scarce when their dad was preserving the slithery fish. “I really needed their help because it’s a painstaking process,” he says. “An ideal specimen is laid out linearly, so it sits flat in a dissecting pan, but the eels want to go in every direction. We had a 300-gallon tub of eels, about 5,000 of them, all encased in slime. We had to pick them up one by one and squeeze off the slime. It sticks to your gloves, sticks to the other eels, sticks to everything.”
Since the local fishery went kaput, Sheehan’s been buying hagfish a few at a time from a Massachusetts supplier, but he’s planning to trap his own off Eastport this spring to meet the increasing demand, which includes his first request for slime. Other than figuring out how to package and preserve the stuff, his main challenge will be developing a stomach to work with it. “It’s revolting,” he says. “You try not to gag, but you can’t help it.”