Commercial coastal hagfish fishery
Hagfish are a primitive jawless fish belonging to the Myxinidae family. They inhabit muddy seafloors in temperate water throughout the world's oceans at depths ranging from 30 to 16,000 feet. Worldwide, there are over 60 known species; however, just two, the Pacific (Eptatretus stoutii) and black hagfish (E. deani) are commonly found in Washington's coastal waters. Hagfish have an eel-like form and they are notorious for secreting copious amounts of slime when threatened or agitated. They are commonly referred to as "slime eels."
In Washington, hagfish are harvested both live and frozen, and essentially all catch is shipped to South Korea, where hagfish are considered a delicacy. In the early 1990s, experimental gear permits were issued to several participants to harvest hagfish for the "eel-skin" leather market in South Korea. Interest in the fishery faded due to difficulties with on-board handling. Captured hagfish often attacked and wounded each other in the vessel's hold and the subsequent damage to the skin rendered them unmarketable. That fishery ended in 1992.
The hagfish fishery on the outer coast of Washington opened as a "trial fishery" under the Emerging Commercial Fishery Act (ECFA) in 2005, prompted by industry request. The purpose of the ECFA is to allow the development and evaluation of new fishery opportunities. The trial designation under the ECFA allows for participation by anyone holding a valid emerging commercial fishery license (i.e., open access) and a hagfish trial fishery permit. The permit is non-transferable and has no market value. A person may hold only one permit at a time.
The fishery is open year-round in only Pacific Ocean waters greater than 50 fathoms in depth and landings are not capped. WDFW closely monitors fishing activity by requiring vessel captains to provide notification in advance of returning to port. This facilitates dockside collection of catch and biological data. Monitoring is also accomplished through a mandatory logbook program.
The commercial hagfish fleet harvest hagfish with baited traps that are placed on a common ground line, which is equipped with an attached marker buoy and pole. The traps are placed on the sea-floor and held there with weighted or anchored chain. The fishery fleet in Washington mostly use traps built from olive or pickle barrels. Traps are equipped with one-way entrance funnels that can vary in number and placement. Traps also have numerous dewatering holes. Commonly used baits include squid, sardine, herring, and various scrap pieces from rockfish.