Image: Hagfish
Paddy Ryan  /  ryanphotographic.com
Hagfish like this one are bottom feeders that recycle nutrients for other fish.
msnbc.com
updated 7/28/2011 1:45:06 PM ET 2011-07-28T17:45:06

A fish that doesn't get much love — and that's despite the fact that it has four hearts and two brains — is being rapidly depleted, a conservation alliance warned Thursday, citing a study that estimated at least 20 percent of the species are at an elevated risk of extinction.

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Hagfish aren't cute (think slimy eels), or even very visible to humans since they are bottom feeders, but they are critical to recycling nutrients for other fish, Conservation International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated.

"By consuming the dead and decaying carcasses that have fallen to the ocean floor, hagfish clean the floor, creating a rich environment for other species including commercial fish such as cod, haddock and flounder," Landon Knapp, lead author of the recent study, said in a statement.

Conservation International took the role of hagfish even further, calling their potential demise the "Depletion of the body snatchers: Bad news for the marine environment."

Image: Hagfish served at South Korean restaurant
Lee Jin-man  /  AP
Hagfish is a delicacy in South Korea, among other places.

The biggest problem are huge ocean trawlers gobbling up hagfish for use as food and even leather clothing.

"Particular areas of concern highlighted in the study include southern Australia, where the only hagfish species present is threatened, and the coast of southern Brazil," the IUCN said in a statement. "Also of concern are the species found in the East China Sea, the Pacific coast of Japan, and coastal Taiwan; in these areas, four of the 13 hagfish species occurring are threatened with extinction."

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"In many geographic regions," added study author Michael Mincarone, "only one or two hagfish species are present, and therefore the loss or decline of even a single species in these areas will have detrimental effects on ecosystems as a whole, as well as the fisheries that depend on them."

When hagfish were overfished in the northwest Atlantic, the IUCN noted as an example, "the stock of other commercial species, such as flounder, plummeted."

The study was published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Aquatic Conservation.

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