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Group hopes citizen scientists can help protect monk seals from deadly hagfish traps

Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 5:01 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 1, 2021 at 5:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hagfish are a delicacy in Korea.

But the traps used to catch them break free and can become death traps for Hawaiian monk seals.

“The number of potential deaths is staggering,” said Cheryl King, of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education Research.

So far this year, about 3,000 of the cone-shaped plastic tubes have been cleared from Hawaii beaches. They fit into the sides of barrel traps set by fishermen off the mainland west coast and east Asia.

“For years people like Cheryl and myself have been removing and collecting these traps off of the shoreline,” Surfrider Foundation’s Lauren Blickley said.

“They’re noticeable enough that we know it’s an issue.

The plastic pieces break free from the barrels and drift thousands of miles to Hawaii’s shores, washing up with other marine debris.

Curious monk seal pups get their noses stuck in the narrow trap that can lock their mouths shut. If the trap isn’t dislodged the seal can starve to death.

There have been 13 confirmed cases of monk seal entanglements by hagfish traps since 2001. King believes many more have happened.

“With the number of these traps floating around in the ocean and the amount of animals out there that we don’t see with these impacts, the number of potential deaths is staggering,” she said.

Surfrider just launched its North Pacific Hagfish Project to get more citizen scientists involved and to collect more accurate data on how many traps wash ashore.

“What we’re doing with our partners in Oregon and east Asia is trying to look where that leakage is happening and find out why it’s happening,” Blickley said.

She said with only about 150 boats in the U.S. hagfish fleet, cracking down on the trap problem is possible but changes won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to take a while because things float around in the ocean for potentially decades before we actually see a stop to them. Stopping it at the source is the whole point,” King said.

The goal is to get fishermen to reduce the number of lost or discarded traps. Surfrider has started discussions with the fisheries.

“It’s a small fishery that we really can work with and try to create a solution for,” Blickley said.

If you find a hagfish trap on the beach, email a photo and the location to Surfrider.org.

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