LOS ANGELES – The hagfish is a bottom feeder so repulsive it had a cameo on TV's "Fear Factor." It slimes its enemies, has rows of teeth on its tongue, and feeds on the innards of rotting fish by penetrating any orifice.
But cooked and served on a plate, it is considered an aphrodisiac in South Korea.
And the overseas appetite for the hagfish — also known as the slime eel — is creating a business opportunity for struggling West Coast fishermen confronted with tough restrictions on the catching of salmon and other fish.
California's annual catch jumped from practically nothing to 150,000 pounds over the past four years. Oregon and Washington state last year reported around 1 million pounds of hagfish caught.
The 14- to 18-inch hagfish looks like an eel. In fact, there is debate over whether it is really a fish. The 300 million-year-old creature has no jaws and one nostril. Essentially blind, it dwells in the dark more than 1,000 feet down.
"The average person would be disgusted just by looking at them," said Mark Crossland, a state Fish and Game warden. "The product is difficult to deal with and handle — it's a little eel that once it gets stressed it excretes this slime."
On NBC's "Fear Factor," two contestants sat in a vat of the creatures and had to push handfuls of them through holes. They described the experience as sticky, stinky and disgusting.
Hagfish has a modest following among older Korean men who savor it as an appetizer broiled in sesame oil, sprinkled with salt and accompanied by a shot of liquor.
Peter Chu, a seafood exporter in Eureka, Calif., said the fish sells for as much as $20 a pound in South Korea, which he estimates consumes 9 million pounds a year.
"There's a myth there that it's an aphrodisiac. It gives you energy like Viagra," Chu said. "It's like oysters here."
Fisherman Mark Tognazzini, who used to catch hagfish in the early 1990s, said it is relatively inexpensive to get into hagfishing. They are caught in five-gallon barrels fitted with trap doors and baited with rotting fish.
In April, California officials encountered a fishing boat near Morro Bay carrying more than 15,000 pounds — approximately 45,000 writhing hagfish — that were to be loaded on jumbo jets live and flown to South Korea.
The Washington-based crew was cited for violations that included fishing without permits and having oversized traps as big as wine barrels.
The hagfish's predators include whales, seabirds and seals. There are no catch limits for hagfish, and the species is in no immediate danger. But some experts worry it could be threatened if the boom continues, because hagfish do not reproduce quickly.
Tognazzini said they are an important part of the marine ecosystem whose job is to clean up the ocean floor.
"The thing is, they're not cute — they don't hit people's hearts," he said.
As if its looks weren't enough of a turnoff, hagfish, when agitated, vomit and secrete a protein that reacts with seawater to create a thick mucus.
A single animal can turn a five-gallon bucket of seawater into a pool of goo in a matter of moments, said Eddie Kisfaludy of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
While the slime distracts predators, it also occasionally suffocates the hagfish.
"They're definitely more interesting than maggots, but then all these researchers who work on fruit flies will probably argue with me," Kisfaludy said.