Weird Gramma
Previous Editions
Dr. Tammy Frank and Dr. Justin Marshall from the Harbor Branch Oceaographic Institution, with an Atlantic hagfish caught in a trap
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration
WeirdFins
THE HAGFISH, KING OF SLIME
Pacific hagfish, Eptatretus stouti, from Astoria Canyon off the Oregon Coast.
Photo: NOAA, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

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Howdy, Weird Gramma here with “WeirdFins,” all about strange stuff in the sea, and brought to you by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You want strange? How about the hagfish, the slimiest, gooeyist fish in the sea. It’s about two feet long and sometimes called a slime eel. They’re the most primitive of all vertebrates—animals with a backbone. There are about 66 kinds and they all look like real ugly eels. But hagfish don’t have useful eyes, or even a real head. And no jaws, either, just a fleshy mouth with a two hard, rasping tongues that grind a hole into dead or dying critters to feast on the flesh and innards.

Hagfish have only one nostril, but it’s really good at sniffing out dead things, including fish on fishermen’s hooks or in traps. Pretty disgusting, though, to pull up a trap and sees that each dead fish is just a bag of skin and bones with a slimy hagfish inside. The goo comes from sacs on the belly, and its purpose is to keep the hagfish safe from predators. But put it in a bucket, and a few minutes, the bucket is completely filled with slime—it looks like a revolting pail of snot.

Hagfish mostly hang out on soft, mucky bottoms, sometimes in very deep water. They’re scavengers, so they’re important in keeping the sea floor clean. And they’re important for other reasons. Their soft, supple skin is used to make the expensive wallets, belts and other leather goods sold as eelskin. And the meat is exported to Asia as a delicacy. But so many hagfish are taken along our coasts that it may soon be necessary to set rules for conserving the ugly—but valuable—hagfish.

You can see pictures of hagfish on the National Marine Fisheries Service WeirdFins link at www.nmfs.noaa.gov.

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