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The slippery side of slime eel fishing

http://morningsentinel.mainetoday.com/news/local/5 [2008-7-24]

Tag : eel skin
BY TOM BELL
Blethen Maine Newspapers
A new fishery has emerged in Maine: the slime eel, one of the sea'soldest and oddest creatures.
Several boats in Portland and the Washington County town ofMilbridge have begun fishing for the deep-water creatures, whichare shipped to Korea so their skin can be made into wallets.
The fishery is unregulated, and scientists don't know much aboutthe slime eel or how much fishing pressure the stocks canwithstand. Some people worry overfishing could lead to a crash, afate that previously befell sea urchins, an unregulated fisherythat went from boom to bust in the 1990s.
The owners of processing companies in Portland and Milbridge,though, say that won't happen with slime eels because they are sodisgusting that only a limited number of people will have anythingto do with them.
"It's a very hard job. Nobody likes it," said Bien Thach, 42, animmigrant from Vietnam who owns Rainbow Seafood Inc., atwo-year-old business on Portland's Hobson's Wharf.
On Thursday, Thach was supervising four people at they sorted thefish and cleaned off the mucus-like slime the eels secrete from 240ducts lining their pink bodies.
Scientists say the slime appears to serve two purposes: It makesthem so slippery predators can't grab a hold of them. Also, theslime causes the unfortunate fish trying to eat it to gag or evensuffocate.
Slime eels also produce a stench that is so strong peopleunaccustomed to the smell can find it difficult to bear.
"That smells like death," said Allie Stevens, a waitress workingBecky's Diner, who was asked by a reporter to step into theprocessing room for a minute. She seemed physically sickened by theexperience.
The slime eel is not a true eel because it lacks a jaw.
It is primitive; all the vertebrates that slithered some 300million years ago are now extinct, except for the slime eel and thelamprey. Their closest relatives are fossils.
Slime eels, also know as hagfish, spend most of their timeburrowing in the muddy bottom in the deep ocean.
They mostly eat invertebrates, such as shrimp, but they also slipinto the mouths, gills and other openings of dead and dying fish toeat them from the inside out.
They are a nuisance to gill-net fishermen because they eat the fishin the nets, said John Williamson, a former fishermen who now worksfor Ocean Conservancy in Portland. "When you haul back the net, allyou have is skins and bones."
Slime eels can devour a 40-pound tuna in 10 minutes, said StaciaSower, a scientists at the University of New Hampshire who hasstudied slime eels since 1980.
Fishermen catch slime eels using traps that sit on the ocean bottomand are strung together, much like lobster traps.
The traps are 50-gallon plastic pickle barrels filled with herringor mackerel bait and weighted down with a concrete block.
The eels crawl down funnels and are unable to escape. The smallones, which have little market value, escape though holes that havebeen drilled all over the surface of the barrel.
Every five days or so, fishermen haul the barrels up, empty thefish on deck, re-fill the barrels with bait and drop them down. Ondeck, the fishermen wash slime overboard.
At Hobson's Wharf recently, the Morning Star, a 77-foot dragger,came in with its hold filled with slime eels.
The vessel and its four-man crew fish 250 barrels at a time, saidthe ship's captain, David Ames, 47, who recently moved fromGloucester, Mass., to Portland.
He said he's now fishing about 90 miles off shore.
He said he likes the fishery because the price he gets for the fish-- 50 cents a pound -- is stable, unlike groundfish.
Hansen Chau, 45, of Westbrook, also is fishing for slime eels thisyear, using an 85-foot dragger, the Meridian, which he bought for$130,000.
So far, he's been able to make his loan payments, but there's notmuch profit because of the high cost of fuel, he said.
In addition to the two big vessels, two small lobster boats arealso fishing for slime eels this year, Thach said.
Thach, who also dives for sea urchins, said his company employs 17part-time workers to clean, sort and pack the fish, which arefrozen and shipped to Korea.
The workers are immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia. They don'tspeak much English and have few options for work, he said.
In Milbridge, Cherry Point Products fishes for slime eels usingfive boats in the 44- to 46-foot range. The company plans to startfishing for eels on July 1, when the season for sea cucumber ends.
The company employs 25 people, not counting the fishermen, saidDrusilla Ray, who own the business with her husband, Lawrence Ray.
She said this will be her third season in the fishery. It fills agap in the fishing year.
"You got people here," she said. "You need to provide work forthem."
Fishermen in Gloucester have been taking sea eels since the early1990s, after it was discovered the ones in the Gulf of Maineproduce a better-quality skin than those on the West Coast. A fewyears ago, Gloucester was considered the world's largest exporterof the fish.
While the fishery in Gloucester has been fairly stable, the efforthas moved farther offshore, said Teri Frady, a spokesperson for theNational Marine Fisheries Service.
The most recent available data on landings are from 2005, when U.S.fishermen landed 800 metric tons.
A Gloucester fisherman in 2002 asked the New England FisheryManagement Council to regulate the species, but the council did nottake action.
Last year, the Fisheries Service for the first time requireddealers to get a federal permit to handle slime eels and vessels tocarry observers, if requested, to gather more data on the fishery.
Compared to other fish, female slime eels produce relatively feweggs -- only 20 to 25 eggs at time. Sower, the UNH scientist, saidshe's worried overfishing could wipe out stocks quickly, somethingthat has already occurred in Asia.
The fish play an important ecological role, she said, by feeding onthe dead and recycling nutrients. Without slime eels, thosenutrients might be wasted.
"They keep everything moving in the ocean, so to speak," she said.
Even though its a relatively small and low-value fishery, it shouldhave its own management plan, just like more glamorous species,said Williamson, of the Ocean Conservancy.
Ray, however, said she doesn't see the need for regulators to stepin.
"I don't have the feeling that it's an industry that a lot ofpeople want to get into," she said.

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