Something fishy going on in Clallam Bay

By Donna Barr

On March 29, a new business that ships live hagfish to Korea opened in Clallam Bay. Wild Ocean Fisheries US, Inc., expects to create 17 local jobs.


Richard Back, a Korean, is the company owner. Ten holding tanks for live eels are located in the cannery that stood empty for so many years by the bridge at the west end of Clallam Bay.


Company secretary Amanda Wood said, “We’re not a processor. We hold live slime eels.”


Hagfish are also known as “slime eels” from their profuse production of mucus as a defense against predators. Readers of modern fiction may recognize the slime eel as a nightmare, insinuating itself into the cavities of drowned horses or humans to feast, and sliming anyone who disturbs them, like a bad Ghostbusters bogey. In reality, the harmless hagfish serves an important purpose in deep-sea ocean ecology, quickly cleaning the flesh from sunken carcasses.


Properly cleaned and slow-barbecued to tenderness, the long, thin fish are used in Korea in traditional spicy dishes. The protein-rich albumin they exude is used as a substitute for egg-whites. Hagfish dishes are usually served with the Korean rice-based liquor known as Soju. Koreans are said to eat over 5 million pounds of hagfish every year, and the company has already shipped 10,000 pounds of the slippery cargo overseas. Anderson said the bigger eels are served in restaurants, and the smaller eels are sold for snacking from street vendor carts — like hot dogs.


The primitive hagfish has no jaws  and is not related to other eels, which are bony fish with jaws. The wild Pacific ocean eels are caught by Kelly Anderson’s “Windwalker,” based out of Neah Bay.


Anderson said that Korea is the only market for hagfish. The 18 fishing boats on the West Coast, from southern California to the Pacific Northwest, are hoping to also sell to a developing Canadian market. Tough hagfish skins are used for what was called “yuppie leather” in the 1990s, a smooth, attractive leather with interesting striations, used for purses, shoes and dress ladies’ boots.


The company is only using half of the cannery building, which is still under an energetic renovation. The parking lot and driveway have been bulldozed, firmed, and are in use.


Alternative industries on the West End

Since all resource industries need to look at a future as stewardships, with occasional down-time for stock recovery, a finished building might offer a good opportunity for the tourism for which the West End is so ideally suited. Alternate cash businesses could be based on available established situations. These could, with the tank building’s ready beach access, include bird-watching in an established Audubon area, and clear-sky accessibility for astronomers in a world where light pollution is more and more of a problem.

The latter could include presentations by NASA, whose outreach programs today even include the Emerald City Comicon (perhaps in with an invitation with Clallam Bay’s own growing local comicon, which also hopes to feature samples of barbecued hagfish in the Lion’s Club kitchen).

Another alternative market that could take advantage of a direct shipping market to Asia in refrigerated ships would be the sale of an available Asian vegetable growing in the area, knotweed, a relative of rhubarb and buckwheat. Originally brought in by Japanese as a garden vegetable, it went wild, and became noxious.


Picked from the woods by the existing picking population, the plant would be more prized by a Japanese market, first because it is a “mountain vegetable” – wild grown and medicinal – and second because it could be marketed as an exotic crop from a famously pristine area like the Olympic Peninsula. This crop would only need blanching, freezing and shipping to the Japanese market. When heavily cropped it cannot spread by its heavy root system. As a non-native plant, it has been in the past eradicated with poisons, which then leach into the groundwater, threatening human and animal health, especially fish stocks.


If there’s a cash market for slime eels – there’s a cash market for knotweed.
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