The waters of Puget Sound are full of them – rat-like creatures with big wings, a long snout, and iridescent eyes. Their glow attracts divers at night, and they lay an abundance of eggs in the murky sediment, hundreds of feet deep on the coastal shelf.
Yet despite their prevalence, hydrolagus colliei, or the spotted ratfish as they are called, are somewhat of a mystery.
“We don’t know a lot about their development,” said biologist Katie Metz, a Local 117 Teamster at the Seattle Aquarium. “They hatch at 200-300 feet deep, and it takes six to twelve months for a single embryo to develop inside its case, which is a really long time.”
The Aquarium has displayed local ratfish for thirty years, but has never managed to raise the animals in captivity. In fact, it’s possible that no one has ever accomplished this feat, until now.
This year, Metz became the first recorded person worldwide to have reared the species into adulthood. Previous attempts in places such as Massachusetts and Portugal have not been nearly as successful.
Although ratfish will occasionally lay their eggs in an aquarium setting, the hatchlings die, usually within twenty-four hours. In Portugal, biologists managed to keep a specimen alive for twenty-four days, but for a fish with a lifespan of ten to fifteen years, that’s a pretty short time.
“We don’t know the reason they die,” Metz said. “Whether it’s a different pressure field 300 feet down - they have really big receptors in their snout, so we don’t know if it’s an electromagnetic mechanism that stops working.”
Metz was intrigued by the animal and saw the failed attempts of others as a challenge. She did her own research and brought a proposal to her boss at the time. “I said, ‘Let me have a solid year of putting these egg cases in a dark environment, and let me try to rear them up to adulthood.” Her boss, reluctant to give up precious space at the Aquarium, finally agreed. “I was persistent,” Metz said.
Metz gathered the eggs, and put them in a dark container. Every month, she held a flashlight underneath the tank so she could see their shadows and note their development inside the egg case. After nine months, some of the eggs started hatching. But, as they had done elsewhere, the fish died within one to two weeks. Metz attributed their inability to survive to fin and snout erosion, caused by the hatchlings bumping their noses into sides of the tank.
She puzzled over the problem and came up with a novel idea. “I thought, ‘If I could only line the container with bubble wrap, it would give them some cushion when they knock against the side of the tank.”
Metz’s pragmatic ingenuity led to a startling success. The last surviving fish, #20, lived beyond two weeks, and it continued to develop and grow. “In Portugal, they had trouble getting theirs to eat; mine ate like a champ,” she said.
#20 survived for over ten months. Metz received recognition for her accomplishment, locally from her colleagues at the Aquarium, and she was invited to speak at a national conference for accredited aquarists and biologists, but was unable to attend due to a shortage of funds.
Funding is a challenge for municipal aquariums. Indeed, changes are underway at the Seattle Aquarium that could impact its funding and possibly its status as a unionized workplace.
"The Teamsters came in, and said, ‘No, these rules have to be followed, and employees have to be treated with respect.’"
For many years, the Aquarium was owned and operated by the City of Seattle. But now, the City wants out of the aquarium business, and Seattle’s Pier 59 landmark is transitioning to a privately-held entity, a process that will be complete in December 2014.
During the privatization process, the eleven biologists at the Aquarium, who are represented by Local 117, will have to decide whether or not to remain Teamsters. If they go non-Union, employees stand to lose their seniority rights, their job security, and the just cause protections under their collective bargaining agreement. Their wages and benefits would also no longer be secure.
“I think it would be very unfortunate,” Metz said.
Metz, who has been an employee at the Aquarium for three years, did not always understand the value of her Union, but she became an ardent supporter when her Business Representative helped her through a sticky situation at work.
“It was a circumstance that I couldn’t handle myself,” she said. “The Teamsters came in, and said, ‘No, these rules have to be followed, and employees have to be treated with respect.’ It’s nice to have someone on your side looking out for your best interests. The Union has given us a voice. The Teamsters are our backbone.”
Metz hopes that the group will remain Teamsters, and she plans to expand on her work raising ratfish at the Aquarium. She’s writing a research paper on the species, and she’s cultivating a new batch of eggs and photographing them to track their development.
As for #20, which, after flourishing for over ten months, inexplicably weakened and died, she holds a special place for the fish in her heart. “You get attached even though you are not supposed to,” she said.