Blood Worm Shortage on East Coast

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Worm shortage a bloody mess.

Outdoors: With the supply of bloodworms in decline, anglers are paying dearly for the versatile bait, if they can find some for sale.

By Candus Thomson
MAryland Sun Staff. Originally published July 29, 2001

Catching fish this summer isn't half as hard as snagging one of Maryland's top saltwater baits - the lowly bloodworm.

Sought by rich international anglers, held hostage by striking worm diggers, and baked alive by an unusually brutal New England sun, bloodworms are making themselves scarce.

Prices in bait-and-tackle shops have risen anywhere from three to five times in the past two months - if merchants have any to sell. Between Tuesday and Thursday, several area bait shops saw wholesale prices jump $5 for a container of 250 worms. That has driven the price of a dozen worms from $4.50 at the beginning of last year's fishing season to as much as $7 now.

"We've lost control," says Dee Taylor at T. G. Tochterman & Sons in Fells Point. "Last year, we thought it had peaked but, boy, were we wrong."

Anglers who usually buy six or seven dozen boxes for a weekend of fishing are putting their wallets back in their pockets, "and I'm proud of them," Taylor says.

Higher prices haven't translated into higher quality, either. Bait shops complain of shipments that include undersized, battered and dead worms.

"They're not big and plump," says Sue Foster of Oyster Bay Tackle in Ocean City, whose customers neverthless snapped up 100 dozen last week in a couple of hours. "But you take what you can get, and you're glad to have them."

At the Fishin' Shop on Pulaski Highway, two customers cleaned out the stock of 14 dozen worms in minutes. "The prices are sky high, but the diehards won't use anything else," says Bill Horstmann.

Bloodworms became popular with anglers by combining the versatility and low cost of a utility infielder with the performance of a star outfielder. They catch everything from white perch to rockfish.

But the worms are as icky as they sound. Running 12-15 inches long with transparent skin, the Glycera dibranchiata squirts red liquid and has nasty poisonous chompers protruding from its snout that can deliver something akin to a bee sting.

Home for bloodworms are the tidal flats of Maine and Nova Scotia. Most of the mid-Atlantic worms come from Maine, where 1,000 state-licensed diggers scratch in the mud with hoes at low tide to find them.

It's a short season, peaking in July and August. Worm digging is backbreaking work, and when the temperatures are high, as they have been recently, the worms make things tougher by burrowing deeper to stay cool.

Diggers, who pay $43 for a yearly license, are independent contractors. Many pick blueberries, make Christmas wreaths or process lobster in other seasons. To get top dollar, they periodically stage work stoppages against the two dozen bait houses licensed by Maine.

"They've gotten five raises this year, and now they're getting 20 cents a worm," says Stetson Everett, owner of the 56-year-old Eastern Sea Worm Co. of Hancock, Maine. "They seem to have forgotten that people don't have to fish, [that] they fish for recreation."

But Everett and others worry that the problem may be more serious than a simple labor dispute.

Foreign anglers and aquaculture businesses are demanding bloodworms and bidding up the prices. The demand was heightened when a virus attacked a species of worm that lives in Central America, forcing fish farms to substitute bloodworms.

The seller's market has attracted a new wave of diggers, who want to cash in quickly.

"Everything's being spread too thin," says Peter Thayer, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "There's worry that the market could be ruined."

Agency statistics show bloodworm harvests dropping from a high of 37 million in 1970 to 21 million in 1998.

"A digger hopes to get 1,000 worms a day to be profitable, but right now it's hard to get 500," says Thayer.

Bloodworms usually arrive in Maryland from Maine aboard a USAirways flight, packed with seaweed in cardboard boxes, 250 to a box. The worms require refrigeration to survive, and sometimes the packages get bumped from flights with disastrous results.

"They bite each other and ... die. It's a bloody mess when you open the case," says Taylor.

What's a poor angler to do? Alternatives include sea clam tongues, sandworms (another Maine product) and a critter right out of a grade-B horror movie, the Vietnamese nuclear worm.

Averaging 2 feet, but growing as long as 5 feet, the nuclear worm has been distributed to bait shops in the mid-Atlantic.

"They look like snakes with pinchers," says Foster, who sells them in her Ocean City shop. "But they don't require refrigeration and have a long shelf life, and you cut them up as you need them. My customers seem to like them."

It may turn out that nuclear worms are good for fishing but bad for fish. In a 1999 report to the federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist based in Annapolis warned that the nuclear worm was being introduced without knowing if it could harm native marine life.

"There are all kinds of nasty diseases in Southeast Asia that I don't want to be exposed to," says Mark Sherfy, now with the U.S. Geological Survey in North Dakota. "One of the unanswered questions is, 'Now that you've bought yourself a 5-foot worm, what else have you bought?' "

In Maine, bait-house owners and state officials are optimistic that the multi-million dollar bloodworm industry will rebound when the new diggers get discouraged, easing pressure on the tidal flats.

"You have to hope this is a cycle," says Thayer. "This was supposed to be a good spawning year, so maybe they'll come back in a couple of years."
 

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