Wednesday, October 22, 2014

New Market Niche for Hagfish?

High school student's research project might ultimately lead to one

By Terry Dillman

A bright, enthusiastic high school senior in Illinois – far removed from the ocean – has found a compelling new use for hagfish, one that, if followed to its logical conclusion, could provide an equally compelling and potentially lucrative market for commercial fishermen.

Grace Niewijk pursued a very unusual premise for a science project during her final year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois: creating absorbent antimicrobial bandages and ointment from Pacific hagfish slime to use on burns and wounds. And she succeeded.

"If you had told me last year that I'd spend much of my senior year of high school researching, handling, and writing about slime eels, I'd have fallen out of my chair laughing," said Niewijk. "Even though I can't say I loved every minute of it – there were some awfully late nights along the way – I wouldn't trade the experience for the world."

After she finished testing her hypothesis, she wrote a 38-page academic research paper, which is under review for publication, and created a presentation about her research that she offered at several science symposia, winning local, regional and national awards along the way.

"I have had a truly astounding amount of success with my hagfish project. I did successfully create absorbent, antimicrobial bandages from hagfish slime," Grace noted. "It was so gratifying to have all my hard work pay off, and to have all that scientific experience under my belt."

This ugly primitive sea creature already fetches sort of pretty prices for some Oregon fishermen, mostly in overseas markets. Drawing on an abundantly available resource and willing buyers, a small number of fishermen cash in on a relatively small, but extremely hungry Asian market.

Demand for both flesh and hide exceeds supply, particularly in Korea, where hagfishing is almost nil due to extensive overfishing. They are prized as edible delicacies, and their hides yield, among other things, eel-skin wallets that patrons can use to shell out the money needed to purchase the eels of their choice from a restaurant's live tanks in a process similar to selecting live lobsters. Fishermen tend to enter and exit the slime eel fishery quickly, so catch numbers fluctuate, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials. For many of the commercial fishermen involved, it's a way to supplement income if another fishery they participate in didn't do so well in a given year. 
But the main reason for fluctuations in participation and landings is the market itself: it remains small compared to other fisheries, with low domestic demand because slime eels don't please palates of people at home. The capricious market takes a toll on processors and hagfishermen alike.

The live market is especially trying, because keeping the eels alive for shipment is no easy task. The prime concern is keeping them from suffocating in their own slime.

"It's all about the survival rate," says Brad Bailey from Eko Uni Import & Export of Tacoma, Washington. "There's so much work involved. You have to babysit the darn things."

Pacific hagfish have numerous glands along both sides of their bodies that emit a protein whenever they feel threatened – which is always. It reacts with seawater to create huge amounts of tenacious mucous to help them easily slip away. Researchers say a single eel can quickly turn a five-gallon bucket of seawater into a slime pit. After the catch, fishermen and processors stay busy removing slime from hagfish tanks to keep them alive. For shipping, processors pack the eels into containers filled with saltwater and liquid oxygen to keep them breathing and keep the containers cool.

Bailey says it's a touchy process, but those with the know-how can deliver the goods alive and well – and keep them alive.

Niewijk, who contacted Fishermen's News last year for information on where to find live hagfish for her project, quickly discovered this firsthand.

Using live Pacific hagfish from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic Coast Seafoods shipped directly overnight to the high school lab, Grace transferred them immediately to a 75-gallon tank filled with ocean-mimicking chilled salt water. She tested salinity weekly and adjusted as needed. She provided the hagfish with PVC piping to hide in, and used minimal lighting "to mimic a natural benthic environment as closely as possible." She fed the hagfish all-they-could-eat whole squid once a month, and followed proper protocol for vertebrate care and treatment. An institutional review board reviewed her procedures, and the slimers were imported under importation and transfer permits she obtained from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She frequently consulted hagfish experts throughout the project.

Niewijk carefully collected slime (in sea water) and exudate (raw fish product collected without sea water) from multiple fish at various times over several months to ensure random sampling.

Douglas Fudge, associate professor and head of the Comparative Biomaterials Lab at the University of Guelph, Ontario, acted as Grace's primary mentor throughout the research process, and Dr. John-Paul Rue, a Naval Academy orthopedic surgeon, served as her expert on bandages and wounds. Classmate Maura Dahl collaborated on parts of the research, Niewijk's family offered support and financial assistance throughout the project, and numerous others provided overall project guidance and assistance, helping her "to design and perform a successful experiment to derive new and unique products."

"This study culminated in the successful creation and testing of absorbent antimicrobial bandages and ointment using the slime of Pacific hagfish," Grace concluded, noting that it backed up her hypothesis that processing hagfish slime correctly would preserve its antimicrobial properties and would form a tough, absorbent material ideal for creating a bandage "because of its unique intermediate filament structure, its ability to capture liquids, and its high levels of antimicrobial activity."

"Future research based on this study should refine materials, develop methods of mass production, and investigate efficacy against other bacteria," she noted.

Niewijk said further development could lead to superior absorbent bandages that promote faster, more complete healing, and "decrease infections by creating an environment less conducive to microbial growth" in wounds and burns without unsightly or crippling scar tissue. Biodegradability and relatively simple methods of processing would also make the bandage materials "more environmentally friendly than most current synthetics." Production costs could also be significantly less.

Hagfish or slime eels play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem as bottom-feeding scavengers. They clean the ocean bottom and release nutrients into the food web to boost the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

Based on the results of Niewijk's experiments, the maligned yet (in some cultures) revered bottom dwellers could play a top role in human health – and possibly in hagfishermen's economic health – sometime in the future.

Slime collection and use would not significantly affect ocean ecosystems, Grace noted, because hagfish are already harvested in large quantities without apparent negative impact (don't tell the Korean fishermen). Making the slime a "marketable commodity" instead of a mucky nuisance could enhance, rather than harm the fishermen's bottom line.

Overharvest From Illegal Fishing Threatens Crab Populations

A new study released by the World Wildlife Fund says that crab populations in the Russian Far East are at risk of collapse because of overharvest from illegal fishing.

The ten-year study of trade and customs data identified major discrepancies between the amount of crab reportedly harvested in Russian waters and the amount imported into other countries.

The study concluded that two-to-four times the legal harvest limit had entered the global marketplace. The magnitude of illegal crab fishing puts the entire Bering Sea marine ecosystem at risk, the report said. The waters where the crab was taken are shared by Russia and Alaska and produce almost 200 million pounds of legally caught crab each year.

Michele Kuruc, WWF vice president of marine policy, said the US is likely importing large quantities of crab and other seafood which may have been illegally caught. The problem, said Kuruc, is the US is unable to say how much is illegal. “We need a way to obtain and assess this information if we want to address this global illegal fishing problem,” he said.

Konstantin Zgurovsky, who heads the WWF-Russia marine program, called for better port control and a transparent, international monitoring system of fishing activity and seafood trade.

The report notes that Russia has in recent years worked to shrink the illegal crab problem by developing bilateral agreements with Japan and South Korea, developing a national plan of action to address illegal fisheries, and continued enforcement at-sea. Yet the problem is multilateral and it demands a multilateral solution, the report said.

Official customs data from South Korea, Japan, China and the US indicate that in 2013 these four countries imported 1.69 times as much live and frozen crab from Russia as official Russian harvest levels.

The report also noted that foreign-flagged vessels harvest crab illegally in Russian waters, and some Russian-flagged vessels either overharvest or harvest crab illegally. Misdeclaring product quantities, off-loading undeclared product onto a transport vessel at sea, or delivering undeclared drab, or declared using fake documentation, directly to a foreign port are known techniques to launder crab.

The report, Illegal Russian Crab: an Investigation of Trade Flow, is online at

Forecast for Togiak’s 2015 Sac Roe Herring Harvest is 29,012 Tons

State fisheries biologists in Alaska say the Pacific herring spawning biomass in the Togiak District was estimated at 203,267 tons in 2014 and is forecast to be 163,480 tons in 2015.

Herring are expected to comprise 50 percent of the biomass in the coming year, while the remaining run is forecast to be ages 4-6, ages 7-8 and ages 12+

A run biomass of 163,480 tons would be 110 percent of the recent 10-year average, with the potential to produce an overall harvest of 32,696 tons in all fisheries and 29,012 tons in the Togiak purse seine and gillnet sac roe fisheries.

This past season the commercial fishermen at Togiak brought in a sac roe herring harvest of 25,136 tons. The purse seine harvest of 18,668 tons had a reported average weight of 364 grams and an average roe percentage of 10.3 percent. The gillnet harvest of 6,469 tons had a reported average weight of 404 grams and an average roe percentage of 11.3 percent, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists at Dillingham said.

Still, prices to fishermen were down, as demand in Japan dropped due to changing habits of buyers with a growing taste for meat dishes.

The biomass of the Togiak herring spawning population has been estimated with aerial surveys since the late 1970s, concurrent with development of the sac roe fishery. Most of the biomass surveyed occurred in the center of Togiak Bay, with a smaller concentration to the east in Kulukak Bay.

NPFMC Endorses Steps to Implement Electronic Monitoring

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has endorsed a target date of 2016 for taking the first steps towards operationalizing electronic monitoring on small fixed gear vessels.

While the council acknowledged this to be an ambitious goal, the council intends to work toward having an electronic monitoring alternative in 2016, at least for the vessels for which accommodating an observer onboard is problematic, the council notes in its October newsletter.

The council’s electronic monitoring workgroup reported on their progress during the October council meeting in Anchorage, outlining a framework for the regulatory amendment package to integrate electronic monitoring as part of the observer program, and continuing efforts to refine the 2015 cooperative research plan to be responsive to the decision points and information needs of the analytical framework. The council has asked the electronic monitoring work group to have a complete research plan ready for the scientific and statistical committee to review in February. The work group is expected to report on its progress at the council’s December meeting in Anchorage.
Dan Hull, a commercial fisherman who was elected chairman of the council at the October meeting, also chairs the electronic monitoring work group.

Other members of the work group include Dan Falvey, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association’ Brian Lynch, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association; David Polushkin, K-Bay Fisheries Association; Bernie Burkholder, F/V Northern Endurance; Malcolm Milne, North Pacific Fisheries Association; Jeff Stephan, United Fishermen’s Marketing Association; Morgan Dyas, Saltwater, Inc., Howard McElderberry, Archipelago; Diana Evans and Chris Oliver of the NPFMC staff; Bruce Leaman, International Pacific Halibut Commission; Nicole Kimball, Alaska Department of Fish and Game; and several representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Alaska Symphony of Seafood Adds New Contest Category

The Alaska Symphony of Seafood will have a third location and a new product category for the 22nd annual competition in February.

In addition to the usual gala soirees in Seattle and Anchorage, the host Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Anchorage has added a venue in Juneau, and along with retail, food service and smoked product competition, a fourth category: Beyond the Plate, for entries made with parts of seafood that would typically be deemed fish waste or a byproduct of the primary processing. Entries may include fish oil, pet treats, fish leather and many other products, says Julie Decker, executive director of AFDF. The industry, said Decker, has heavily invested in development of new products from traditionally unused seafood parts. The new category is being offered to highlight and promote the improvements the industry has made to reduce fish waste, develop new products and increase the value of Alaska’s seafood.

Entries will be judged on the product’s packaging and presentation, overall eating experience, price and potential for commercial success.

Dates of the Symphony of Seafood events will be announced at the end of October along with the call for product. Entry forms and fees are due by Dec. 31

Information on how to enter is online at
Since 1993, the Alaska Symphony of Seafood has celebrated creative and innovative ideas in the seafood industry, bringing new products before a panel of judges and the public. The event was created by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation to promote new product development for seafood harvested in Alaska waters by encouraging participation and sponsorship from a variety of companies and organizations that together are building the future of the Alaska fishing industry.

AFDF is a private, non-profit organization created in 1978 to further develop Alaska’s seafood industry. AFDF works with harvesters, processors and the support sector to identify and prioritize problems common in Alaska’s seafood industry, and collaborates with scientists, government agencies and coastal communities to resolve these issues.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NPFMC Approves Observer Deployment Plan

Federal fisheries managers have approved the 2015 annual deployment plan for the marine observer program, with several recommendations, including one for conditional releases for some vessels in the small vessel trip selection stratum.

The recommendations to National Marine Fisheries Service came at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s fall meeting in Anchorage, during the second week of October, came after the council heard additional testimony on NMFS’s draft 2015 annual deployment plan.

The council recommended two selection strata for 2015, a small vessel trip selection and large vessel trip selection, with a 12 percent selection probability for the small vessel trip selection stratum and 24 percent selection probability for the large vessel stratum. The council was urged to allow conditional releases in 2015 for vessels in the small vessel trip selection stratum that don’t have sufficient life raft capacity to accommodate an observer and/or to assist in addressing vessels with limited bunk space.

The council recommended that vessels selected by NMFS to participate in the electronic monitoring cooperative research be placed in the no selection pool while participating in such research. Also recommended was that trawl vessels that fish for Pacific cod in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands be given the opportunity to opt-in to full observer coverage and carry an observer at all times while fishing in those areas, using the same approach as in 2014.

The council further recommended that the annual report on the deployment plan include information to evaluate a sunset provision, including information on the potential for bias that could be introduced through life raft conditional release, the cost to an individual operator of upgrading to a larger life raft, and the enforcement disincentives from downgrading one’s life raft.

The council also addressed industry concerns from the Freezer Longline Coalition over the shortage of Lead Level 2 observers for deployment on catcher processor hook-and-line vessels. “In order to provide and maintain a viable observer pool, there is a need to ensure that there is a sufficient training opportunity for new LL2 observers as well as consideration of incentives to retain existing trained LL2 observers,” the council said in a motion.

The council encouraged the Freezer Longline Coalition and observer providers to work together, with a representative from the NMFS observer program present at such work sessions to help resolve the matter.

NOAA, American Seafoods Settle on Flow Scale Cases

Federal fisheries officials have settled with American Seafoods Co. over three civil enforcement cases involving flow scales on board the company’s fishing vessels, with ASC agreeing to pay a combined civil penalty of $1.75 million.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in an announcement in mid-October that the cases relate to events that occurred during 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012 in the Alaska pollock fishery.

NOAA charged that personnel aboard the ASC’s catcher-processor vessels American Dynasty, Ocean Rover and Northern Eagle violated the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the American Fisheries Act by causing the flow scales to weigh inaccurately.

American Seafoods Co. harvests, processes, distributes and markets a diverse seafood product line from fisheries in waters off of the coasts of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The company has regional sales offices in Asia and Europe.

Flow scales are used to ensure accurate catch accounting on catcher processors, and the data they collect are essential to effective management of the Alaska pollock fishery, one of the largest, most valuable fisheries in the world. Pollock processed on these vessels is used for a variety of products, including fish fillets, imitation crab, roe, fish oil and fishmeal.

Inge Andreassen, president of American Seafoods, said the company is satisfied with the outcome of these cases. “Our cooperative dialogue with NOAA has helped us improve our internal procedures and, we believe, will improve the agency’s oversight of flow scale matters throughout the fleet.

The violations were investigated by NOAA”s Office of Law Enforcement and prosecuted by the enforcement section of NOAA’s Office of General Counsel. The cases resulted from reports from observers assigned to the American Seafoods Co. vessels who noticed discrepancies between weights recorded by the flow scale and their own motion-compensated scales. Observers are responsible for monitoring and documenting the fishing activities on board the vessels, and their reports are used for scientific, management and compliance purposes in the Alaska pollock fishery.

Separate from these enforcement cases, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed a change to its flow scale regulations that would tighten daily scale testing standards, require that test results be electronically reported to NMFS, improve the agency’s ability to detect accidental or intentional introduction of scale bias and require flow scale video monitoring aboard all catcher processors using at-sea scales.

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