Hawaiʻi Region

hagfish trap

North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project

The North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project is an international, collaborative effort to develop options aimed at reducing the number of lost and discarded hagfish traps and thus their impact on Hawaiian Monk Seals. It may also serve as a replicable model for future efforts aimed at derelict fishing gear reduction.

The Project’s primary goals are:

1. Identify the source of hagfish traps washing up on Hawaii coastlines.

2. Calculate the number of hagfish traps on Hawaii, Korea, and North American coastlines.

3. Collaborate with hagfish fisheries on equitable solutions to reduce the number of lost or discarded hagfish traps.

The Problem

Lost and discarded fishing gear is a primary contributor to plastic pollution on Hawaiʻi beaches and poses a major threat to marine and coastal ecosystems. Yet given its international scope, large geographical range, and difficulties in tracing the source of gear, derelict fishing gear remains a challenging problem.

Hagfish traps represent one of the many types of commercial fishing gear that pollute Hawaiʻi coastlines. Compared to other types of fishing gear, however, the hagfish trap’s distinctive cone shaped funnels are easily identifiable and originate from small fisheries on the west coast of North America and in east Asia, mainly Korea. The animals are sold almost exclusively to Korean markets for food or use in “eel skin” products such as wallets and boots. 

In 2021, Surfrider Foundation’s Kauaʻi Chapter and partner organizations Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund and SHARKastics have already removed an estimated 3,000 hagfish traps from shorelines on Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, Maui, and Lanaʻi. Collaboration has also been set up with OSEAN.net in Korea.

Hagfish trap cones collected off the Lana’i coastline. PC: Cheryl King, SHARKastics

What are Hagfish?

Hagfish are eel-like scavengers that are important to cleaning the ocean of dead carcasses. As bottom-feeders, these primitive fish are typically found in cool, deep waters. To protect themselves from predators, they produce a thick, mucus-like slime. Hagfish are considered a culinary delicacy in Korea (“gomjangeo“) and their skins are turned into “eel-skin” products like boots, wallets, and purses.

Hagfish being poured out of a barrel. PC: Steven Senne/AP

Impacts to Hawaiian Monk Seals

Not only do the traps contribute to the global plastic pollution pandemic, but they are also responsible for harming marine animals, notably endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal pups. Young Hawaiian monk seals may get the funnel-like trap parts caught on their snouts, causing abrasion, infection, starvation and eventually death.

In the last twenty years, 13 seal pups and one yearling have been found entangled by hagfish traps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This number of monk seal entanglements in hagfish traps, however, is likely an underestimation.

Get Involved

Surfrider Foundation is encouraging beach cleanup organizations and individuals to get involved by:

1. Removing any hagfish traps you find on the beach.

2. Keeping the traps and contacting hagfish@surfrider.org. Include a picture of each trap and the number of traps collected.

Information about where to send hagfish traps will be provided via email.