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Eel Trap Project Gains Momentum Across the Pacific

In 2023, the Surfrider Foundation Kaua'i Chapter was awarded the Joanna Toole grant through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) to expand the North Pacific Eel Trap Project with partners in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.  

As the most remote island chain in the world, and its location close to the North Pacific Gyre, Hawai'i is a hotspot for marine debris of all kinds, most notably ALDFG (Abandoned and Lost Derelict Fishing Gear). The North Pacific Eel Trap Project was launched to specifically to address the challenges of eel trap entrances (ETEs) and their potential to ensnare wildlife such as Hawaiian monk seal pups and other marine animals. Eel traps consist of a cone shaped entrance leading into a long cylindrical trap. They are typically used in Asia but also in other places around the Pacific Rim and can float for thousands of kilometers on ocean currents, with many of them ending up in the Hawaiian archipelago.


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(Above) An eel trap and its different parts


In 2023, Surfrider Kaua'i partnered with local Hawai'i groups Hawaii Wildlife Fund and SHARKastics as well as with organizations in Korea, Japan, including Surfider Foundation Japan, and fellow GGGI member Indigo Waters Institute in Taiwan, to:

  • identify producers of all eel trap entrances (ETEs) found on Hawaiian shores;

  • prevent ETEs from harming Hawaiian monk seal pups and other marine mammals;

  • develop a program for collecting and sharing data from eel ALDFG in the Pacific Ocean – specifically the west coast of North America, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan; and

  • work with hagfish fisheries in the U.S. Pacific to develop hagfish fisheries management policies, recommendations and regulations that support the fishing industry and reduce ALDFG.

During the grant period in 2023, approximately 2,602 ETEs were collected and recorded adding to over 11,000 collected in the main Hawaiian Islands. This number is currently increasing as a change in position of the North Pacific Gyre causes more ALDFG to come ashore in Hawaii than there has been over the past 3 years. 137 different models of ETE have been identified, based mainly on differing hole patterns and how the ETEs were attached to the cylindrical trap (Screw on, latch, hook). A catalog of photos of the defining characteristics was created and distributed to the project partners so that everyone was clear about each characteristic. Surfrider Foundation now has approximately 5,000 images to use in potentially developing Artificial Intelligence to accurately identify each model.

The writing on a few of the ETEs indicated that some were made at least 22 years ago and that some of the production companies making these models had gone out of business. While visiting one manufacturer in Korea, Surfrider Foundationlearned that most ETE are made separately in two parts (cone & funnel) and at different times, making consistent identification challenging. Also, the injection molds used in making the ETE wear out every 2-3 years and independent companies are hired to make new molds incorporating any design changes requested by the fishers, or added at the whim of the mold maker. Thus, ETE parts made by the same company change over time and parts may be used in many combinations, making it hard to attribute all the different models to a few manufacturers, mainly in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Currently, little is known about ETE production in China, mainly from company advertisements on the web, but the eel fishery is thought to be huge and will be a focus going forward.

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(above) Eel trap found on the coastline of Japan. 

All the participating groups were provided with information concerning ETEs and the harm they cause to marine life, especially marine mammals such as Hawaiian monks seals, sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins. An information poster was translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean and adapted by the partnering groups. Project partners worked to remove all ETEs from the shoreline, record their findings, and then properly recycle or dispose of the ETEs. Surfrider also developed an email recording system ( that was used by collaborators in the U.S. to send data and photos. Surfrider Foundation is also exploring adapting the existing apps for tracking marine debris both in the U.S. and in Asia to include ways to submit data on ETEs.

Promisingly, the Korea Institute of Fisheries Science (KIFS) developed a biodegradable polymer to be used in the production of fishing nets, ropes and lines, which was first introduced in 2014. They continued to refine the product and in 2023 announced the patenting and commercial licensing of a new product which has been used in the injection molding of biodegradable ETEs (BETEs). In 2023, the Korean government subsidized the production and distribution of approximately 250,000 BETEs to Korean fishers. Surfrider, along with partners in Asia, were not able to find any other companies in production of biodegradable fishing gear, though one Japanese company, Nichimo, states that it is in the R&D phase of developing biodegradable material.

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(Above) Surfrider Kaua'i volunteer Dr. Carl Berg met with project partners in Asia to take the next steps in addressing the eel trap issue across the Pacific. 

Surfrider Foundation Hawai'i Region has also joined in collaboration with scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Rhode Island through their Nereid Project, in the design and production of BETEs using material produced by methanotrophic bacteria. The new BETEs are unique in that they are specifically designed to lessen the chances of entanglement of monk seal pups or ingestion by marine animals.

Design features include:

  • density greater than seawater so that they do not float, but will sink to the seafloor;

  • are readily degraded in the marine environment at depth, specifically by bacteria that inhabit the deep-sea floor;

  • will break down quickly so that lost eel traps will not continue to ghost fish; and

  • will first break in half early in degradation so that they will not maintain a cone shape that would entangle monk seals or other marine mammals.

Email and telephone discussions were also held with U.S. state fisheries officers responsible for managing hagfish fisheries on the west coast of the U.S. (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California). All states have regulations regarding registering for the fisheries and recoding catch. There are no eel or hagfish fisheries in British Columbia, Canada. The hagfish fisheries on the U.S. west coast have diminished to such an extent that there are only 1-2 boats actively fishing in each of AK, WA, OR and perhaps 20 boats active along the entire coast of CA. Because of the small size of the fisheries, no one saw a need for any changes in policies or regulations. Fishers are being asked to test BETEs from KIFS to see how they hold up under US fishing practices and may later be engaged in testing BETEs from the Nereid Project.