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Conservationists seek public’s help to solve marine mystery

Surfrider launches effort to find hagfish traps, many of which show up on Lanai

A monk seal is entangled in a hagfish trap off Kure Atoll, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Surfrider Foundation on Monday launched a statewide effort called “North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project,” which seeks public help to find hagfish traps so the debris can be traced back to their fisheries. State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

Beachgoers in Maui County may help solve a mystery that’s been plaguing Hawaii’s waters for years.

The Surfrider Foundation on Monday launched a statewide effort called “North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project,” which seeks public help to find hagfish traps so the debris can be traced back to their fisheries.

Fisheries outside Hawaii use the black or dark gray cylinder-shaped funnels made from strong plastic to trap “slime eels” or “hagfish.” The animals, usually found in temperate to cooler waters, are then sold to Korean markets as food or used in “eel skin” products such as wallets and boots, project officials said.

In Hawaii, though, they wash up on coastlines and put marine animals at risk, particularly the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

That’s why Surfrider Foundation is relying on “citizen scientists” to do detective work in locating the traps and reporting them to hagfish@surfrider.org. Details about where to send hagfish traps will be provided via email.

Hagfish traps, black or gray plastic cones, are shown piled up in Lanai during a cleanup effort this month. More than 1,000 of 3,000 traps collected this year were extracted from Lanai’s coastline, according to Surfrider Foundation. Cheryl King / SHARKastics photo

“Every hagfish trap found on a Hawaii beach has traveled thousands of miles on ocean currents to get here,” said Paia resident Lauren Blickley, Surfrider Foundation’s Hawai’i regional manager. “There are no local boats fishing for hagfish. All of this pollution is coming from elsewhere.”

Hawaiian monk seal pups may get the trap caught on their snouts, causing abrasion, infection, starvation and eventually death, a Surfrider news release said. Over the last two decades, 13 seal pups and one yearling have been found entangled by hagfish traps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. A Kauai monk seal was pictured playing with a trap, Blickley said.

This year more than 3,000 traps were found by Surfrider and partners in Kauai, Maui, Lanai and Hawaii island — with about 1,000 of those off Lanai’s coast, project officials said Monday afternoon. Windward-facing coastlines are especially prone to see the traps, although they may pop up in Kihei or other leeward spots during Kona winds.

Kihei resident Cheryl King, a marine biologist who is part of the Surfrider project, said the traps look like old-school party hats, or dunce caps. Although there are no numbers or other markings on the traps, they have distinct patterns and can be categorized into groupings.

“That’s what’s going to be fun — to kind of do a little bit of detective work to figure out: Are the (fisheries) in Korea using this kind or the ones on the West Coast using this type?” said King, founder of SHARKastics, a marine debris cleanup and research program.

There is not much data on the traps from Hana and around the eastern end to Kaupo, particularly in hard-to-access places, she added.

“The idea of getting to those tougher-to-get-to spots is really intriguing to me because it gives us an insight of what part of the island has different currents so it brings different things at different times,” King said.

Blickley on Monday afternoon said that Surfrider has covered a lot of ground within Hawaii to address land-based sources of coastal debris. She highlighted the foundation’s work to pass local policies addressing single-use plastics in recent years.

Now, Surfrider can look beyond Hawaii’s shores to the sources of debris that end up in the Aloha State. The hagfish traps help illuminate the bigger issue of derelict commercial fishing gear, she said.

As volunteers with Surfrider and other community groups conduct beach cleanups year after year, month after month, some begin to wonder why debris — such as hagfish traps — can’t be stopped at the source.

“We’ve been removing this for a long time, but we want to stop removing it because we don’t want it to be there in the first place,” Blickley said. “We don’t want to have to remove it.”

The North Pacific Hagfish Trap Project comprises trans-Pacific partnerships among community organizations, fishers and fishery managers to reduce derelict fishing gear pollution in Hawaii.

The collaboration includes Surfrider Foundation island chapters, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, SHARKastics and Pulama Lana’i, along with OSEAN.net in Korea.

For more information, visit hawaii.surfrider.org/hagfish.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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