Sounds Wild


Download Episode: Hagfish (MP3 file 1,406 kB)



In the fall of 2017, a fishing boat is working the waters of southern Southeast Alaska, deploying a string of baited five-gallon buckets. The buckets are fish traps, lowered on a long line and soaked on the bottom. This is a test fishery for black hagfish, blind, eel-like sea-floor scavengers that also eat worms and crustaceans. It's a success. But the issue is not catching hagfish, but understanding how to manage the fishery sustainably.

Some species of hagfish are hermaphroditic, meaning one animal has both genders; and some are protandric, meaning they start out male and switch to female. 90 percent of the hagfish caught in the test fishery are female, and Fish and Game biologists are learning if that's the actual sex ratio or if the fishing method favors females.

Hagfish are a popular food in Korea. Their tough, dark skin is also popular tanned as leather, and sold as eelskin. Hagfish also produce a clear, thick slime. Applications for the slime are being explored - using the slime to treat burns, to make bandages, and to make special fabric.

When hagfish scavenge something on the seafloor, they basically chew their way into the carcass, using the slime to lubricate their tunnel. They also produce slime when they are attacked by a predator, encasing themselves in a goopy ball of gelatin that impairs and distracts the predator.