“The most repulsive creature around!”
Such is the typical reaction of people when they first encounter a hagfish. But, really, such an extremely negative opinion is not at all justified. Not only are there plenty of other repulsive animals to choose from (how about, for example, a blood-bloated tick?), but hagfishes actually have many redeeming and fascinating features.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that hagfishes are often considered to be the “lowest of the low” as far as fishes are concerned. If sharks and rays, with their cartilaginous skeletons, are classified as “lower” than bony fishes, then the 40 or so members of the hagfish family Myxinidae, with just a minimal amount of cartilage that service as their backbones, barely qualify as being called vertebrates.
However, skeletons are not all that hagfishes are lacking. They also have no paired fins, no scales, no functional eyes. They don’t even have a distinct head and their skull is only a simple ring of cartilage.
Hagfishes do not have any jaws either. Their mouths are basically a pair of rasping tongues, encircled by eight barbels. In the past, people have assumed hagfishes to be parasites, but they are actually predators and scavengers. Despite having only a single nostril, they have an acute sense of smell, and hagfishes are able to locate all sorts of dead or dying sea animals (although they also will take on some living critters, such as crustaceans). They use their odd mouths to excavate a hole into their prey, then feast away. This feeding habit has not exactly endeared them to fishermen. Imagine the disgust of those who have come to retrieve the contents of their fish traps, but instead of a marketable catch, have instead found the mere carcasses of fishes, devoid of flesh, yet seething with hagfishes!
And often slimy—yes, very slimy—hagfishes at that. What hagfishes lack in other ways, they make up for with voluminous production of slime. A single hagfish can quickly excrete a bucket full of slime. (Because of this habit, hagfishes are also at times referred to as “slime eels” or “slime hags”.)
This slime, however, is not just ordinary slime, but it is exceptionally cohesive (i.e., sticky), tough and strong. It has been said to rival the strength of spider webbing (yet it has also been said to be ‘the gooiest, gloppyist, most amazing slime anywhere). There has been research into practical uses of this slime, perhaps as a substitute for chicken eggs in baking or even in connection with treatments for cancer.
This may be a ways off. In recent years, though, the popularity of slimy hagfishes has skyrocketed, not because of their slime, but because of their soft, subtle skin. This has been converted into wallets, purses, belts, shoes, and the like. Marketers were clever enough not to promote these products as hagfish skin, so instead they came up with the pseudonym of “eel skin.”
Suddenly, fishermen who previously recoiled at the thought of finding hagfishes in their traps are setting up special traps specifically in hopes of fishing their fortunes through hagfishes.
New regulations regarding hagfish fisheries thus had to be enacted, not only in California, but also in other cold water marine areas around the country. The catch is exported to Korea and China. At first, these hagfishes were only being utilized for their leather. However, in the Orient the meat as well is popular eating, so after changes in trade restrictions, they have been exported for this purpose, too.
Californians who would prefer observing hagfishes in their living state rather than after their hides have been tanned in some department store, can do so, but with some effort. In general, hagfishes do not do well in fish tanks, but through specialized considerations, some Aquariums have been able to add these repulsive fishes to their attractions.
California divers seeking to find hagfishes in the wild may have to vary their diving habits a bit. In keeping with their lowly ways, hagfishes tend to hang out in the soft muck and mud of colder water, usually over 30 feet deep, all the way to at least 3,000 feet. Often the slimy fishes will bury themselves in the soft sediment and just poke out their ugly face. There are several species along the California coast, the most common being the Pacific Hagfish (Eptatretus stouti), which is usually a brown or gray color, a foot or so in length.
Not a whole lot more is known of hagfish natural history. It is unclear how long they live or how productive they are. The do hatch from little sausage-like leathery eggs, with no larval stage. They begin life as hermaphrodites. As to whether they later develop into males or females seems to be dictated by population pressures or the environment.
However, it is becoming more and more apparent that hagfishes do play an important environmental function in the mucky, murky, low-light twilight zone in which they live. As repulsive as their feeding habits may seem, they do serve as an extremely effective means to keep the sea floor clean of dead carcasses. For example, a 30-ton dead whale lying on the sea floor would take an incredibly long time to recycle were it not for the diligent efforts of hagfishes!
But it is also known that fishing pressure in the Orient is what drove the “eel skin” industry to look elsewhere for their supply and hence over-fishing is a real possibility. There is undoubtedly a balance point out there somewhere—but when dealing with such a slimy creature of the dark depths of the sea, it may take some doing to find it.