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
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
“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
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

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.