Save the snot eels!

By Rebecca McLeod 02/03/2010

Hmmm, perhaps not quite as catchy as “Save the Whales”… but there are other marine species out there that we should care about too, no matter how uncuddly they may be.

At a global level, New Zealand is regarded to have some of the most well managed fisheries. Here, most exploited species are managed under the Quota Management System (QMS), which regulates the total catch for each species. But you may be surprised to know that not all marine species are managed in this way – there are some which, as a consequence of their exclusion from the QMS, are effectively “open access fisheries”.  Commercial fishers still need to have permits to take these species, but there is no apparent limit as to how many permits can be handed out.

The reason these species (think seahorses, cat’s eyes and sea anemones) are not in the QMS is because they are not considered to be desirable as fishery targets. But as times change, so do appetites for the weird and wonderful. For example, the Ministry of Fisheries has recently entered giant kelp into the QMS, as there is potential for the kelp to be used as feed in paua farms and in the pharmaceutical industry. I have blogged on this contentious issue previously.

But today I would like to draw your attention to the plight of the lowly hagfish (aka the snot eel). Whilst it appears that the western world is only interested in hagfish for entertainment purposes (an episode of Fear Factor comes to mind), they are much sought after by asian markets where the flesh is eaten and the skin made into designer leather (marketed as eel skin). The high demand for hagfish coupled with unregulated fisheries led to complete collapse of fisheries in Southeast Asia in the 1980’s, the West Coast of the United States in the 1990’s, followed by the East Coast in the early 2000’s. For now the New Zealand population appears to be in a good state, although perhaps not for long according to our sole resident hagfish expert, Dr Ric Martini. “There has never been a sustainable commercial fishery for these animals anywhere in the world, and there’s no reason New Zealand should be an exception.”

Kiss anyone? New Zealand's most common hagfish, Eptatretus cirrhatus. Photo: Stephen Wing
Kiss anyone? New Zealand's most common hagfish, Eptatretus cirrhatus. Photo: Stephen Wing

Four years ago one company, Tuere Fishing Ltd. of Christchurch, began small-scale commercial hagfish fishing in New Zealand coastal waters. Although the venture hasn’t been wildly successful, it continues to operate and interest in Korea has been sufficient to attract a second company operating out of Tauranga. Dr Martini is concerned that the fishery here is currently unregulated. “The startup fishery got the attention of the Korean buyers, and now others are moving into the market. Without regulatory oversight, we risk a ’gold-rush’ fishery, where multiple companies capitalize heavily to maximize their catch.  Experience suggests that the boats will get larger and more numerous and landings will skyrocket while the catch per unit effort declines, and then in 3-5 years the fishery will collapse.’

But who cares about a stinking, slimy fish that lives at the depths of the ocean?

Although very little is known about the biology of our most common species, Eptatretus cirrhatus, it appears that they play a key role in deep sea ecosystems – as a food source for large fish and marine mammals, as key scavengers of carrion and as aerators of deep sea sediment. Dr Martini has counted upwards of 325,000 hagfish in a square kilometer! Yes, you read this correctly, three hundred and twenty-five THOUSAND. Surely at densities this high, hagfish must have a high impact on their habitat and interact with other species that live there.

The likelihood of sustainable management of a fishery increases with the knowledge of the target species. Unfortunately for hagfish, very little is known about even the most basic life history characteristics such as growth rates, breeding grounds, embryo development, age structure of the population, or natural mortality rates. But we do know that they reproduce slowly — females produce only 20-40 large eggs that take 1-2 years to produce, and another year to develop into young hagfish. So they are certain to be at least as vulnerable to overfishing as the pelagic sharks — and fisheries for sharks have proven to be extremely difficult to manage sustainably. It would be prudent, then, to treat the burgeoning New Zealand hagfish fishery with great care.

A good place to begin, according to Dr Martini, would be to undertake some baseline surveys around New Zealand to estimate the size of the population. This information, combined with improved knowledge of basic life history characteristics would form the basis for management of the fishery. However, there are steps that can be taken in the meantime whilst that information is being collected. Faced with similar regulatory uncertainties, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has classified hagfish as an ’experimental fishery.’ This involves issuing a limited number of permits (for example, only one vessel is permitted to fish for hagfish in water offshore from British Columbia), making escape holes in pots mandatory to allow juveniles to escape, collecting catch data, and encouraging collaboration with scientists to research the life history of these animals and to detect any changes in the hagfish population as the fishery operates. The Canadian program is an appropriate model for New Zealand to adopt, as it would allow the fishery to develop under tightly controlled conditions that protect the resource.

As pressure mounts on the New Zealand hagfish fishery it is important that the Ministry of Fisheries reconsider the status of hagfish in our waters, and move towards regulating the extraction of this vulnerable species – experience shows that if we continue on our current course, this fishery is headed for collapse!

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