The hagfish, a primitive fish that looks like an eel and scavenges off the ocean floor, dwells in cold, deep waters around the world — but not in Hawaii.
Yet, for years, thousands upon thousands of plastic traps, designed to capture this fish considered a delicacy in Asia, have been washing up on Hawaii shorelines. The traps, with cone-shaped funnels, are part of the stream of debris brought to shore by ocean currents.
Now the Surfrider Foundation is launching a project to collect data on how many hagfish traps there are on Hawaii’s shores, and to track down where they are coming from.
“We’re tired of picking it up,” said Lauren Blickley, Surfrider’s Hawaii regional manager. “We’ve seen it regularly. This is the first project of its kind to specifically home in on the hagfish trap problem, not only evaluating it from what’s washing up, but also how we can solve it and what solutions there are to stop it at the source.”
The “North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project” asks all Surfrider chapters and citizen scientists to remove any hagfish traps found on the beach, and to document them by taking a photo, with the number collected and where, and to email that to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ultimate goal is identify their source and to collaborate with fisheries on ways to reduce lost or discarded hagfish traps.
According to Blickley, the hagfish trap is among the top 10 fishing gear items picked up by volunteers at regular beach cleanups — from as far as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to Kahoolawe and Hawaii island.
Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai chapter, along with partner organizations Hawaii Wildlife Fund and SHARKastics have removed an estimated 3,000 hagfish traps from shorelines on Kauai to Maui, Lanai and Hawaii island. They have also been found at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and the Windward side of Oahu.
In late August, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii hauled nearly 750 pounds of plastic debris from Moomomi Beach on Molokai, including ghost nets, microplastics and hagfish traps.
The traps are not from land-based pollution and not from Hawaii, said Blickley. They originate from small fisheries from thousands of miles away on the West Coast and in East Asia, mainly Korea, where the hagfish is a popular delicacy sold at markets or used in eelskin products such as wallets and boots.
But Hawaii ends up with marine debris from the North Pacific Gyre because of the way the ocean currents work, she said, mostly along windward shorelines. Leeward side coastlines, meanwhile, get more of the land-based litter.
The gathering of information and data is just a starting point, she said, but there has already been a good response since the project was launched about a week ago.
“Basically, as we start looking at each individual trap, we noticed that different traps have different patterns in holes, spacing, and each cone may look a little different,” she said. “Once we have a good idea of what each looks like can we categorize them, and from there trace it back to the fishery of origin or possibly the boat.”
The hagfish traps also harm marine animals, including critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals.
Monk seals are curious, and playful pups have been documented with the funnel-like trap caught on their muzzles, which can cause abrasion, infection and starvation.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found 15 documented entanglements of monk seals in hagfish traps from 2000 to 2020 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Most of them were young seals that pushed their muzzles inside the traps. Fortunately, monk seal researchers pulled them off, with only one resulting in a minor injury. If a hagfish cone were to remain firmly affixed to a seal’s muzzle, the study said, the seal would over the long term be unable to forage — and this would ultimately lead to death.
It’s mind-boggling that a plastic hagfish trap from thousands of miles away can affect animals on a remote isle in the middle of the Pacific, said Blickley, showing just how broad the issue of plastic pollution is.
“It really is a global issue,” she said. “There are so many facets to it and so many ways we have to work together. This shows how interrelated and connected we all are.”
SURFRIDER HAGFISH TRAP PROJECT
See a plastic hagfish trap at the beach?
>> Remove any hagfish traps you find on the beach.
>> Keep the traps, count them, take a photo of them and email the information to email@example.com.
Source: Surfrider Foundation