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.

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