By Kaitlyn Clark
Reviewed by Rebecca Cole-Will, William G. Ambrose Jr., Chris Petersen, Natalie Springuel
Much like when the fishery started a century ago, the contemporary marine worm fishery still focuses on two species, bloodworms (Glycera dibranchiata) and sandworms (Alitta virens). In this fishery, worm harvesters—also called wormers or diggers—work during low tide to harvest marine worms from the extensive mudflats along Maine’s coastline. Diggers typically specialize in digging either bloodworms or sandworms, but some diggers do switch species depending on market influences.
In 2019, there were around 800 active worm harvesters in Maine (Maine DMR, 2019). This number has fallen from 2009, when the industry employed 1,100 diggers (Sypitkowski et al., 2009). For bloodworms, landings from 2014–2018 ranged from 376,294 lbs to 447,767 lbs with a value from $6,043,949 to $6,585,071, about 50 percent of peak landings for the fishery in the 1970s (Maine DMR, 2019). For sandworms, landings from 2014–2018 ranged from 195,608 lbs to 222,379 lbs with a value from $1,430,051 to $1,595,069, about 20 percent of peak landings (Maine DMR, 2019).
Combining the two species, the marine worm fishery is the fifth most valuable fishery in Maine, following the lobster, elver, Atlantic herring, and soft-shell clam fisheries (Maine DMR, 2019). As of May 2019, most shops will pay $0.35 per bloodworm and $0.18 to $0.20 per sandworm, with shops further from the East Coast markets in Boston and New York paying less per worm to offset the additional costs of transporting these worms.
As an open fishery, there are no restrictions on license sales, and anyone can enter the industry by purchasing a license from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). The only restrictions on this industry are that diggers cannot use any form of mechanical harvest or work on Sundays. With a state worm license, diggers can harvest worms from any mudflat in the state so long as they can reach it from a public access point or secure permission to cross private property. As of 2019, the cost of a year-long license to harvest worms is $50 (Maine DMR, 2014).
Digging on the Mudflats
Digging begins on the mudflats as the tide begins to recede, exposing the mud and allowing diggers to walk out from shore to access the flats. The texture and depth of the mud varies by location, requiring diggers to develop a deep understanding of the characteristics of individual flats along the Maine coast. Wormers usually dig in a series of long straight strips about one meter wide (Sypitkowski, 2009). While digging, wormers use steel hoes to harvest worms, planting the hoe with one or both hands and then “flipping” the mud back to reveal worms hidden in the sediment. As sandworms tend to live deeper in the mud and lower in the intertidal, sandworm hoes typically have longer tines than bloodworm hoes.
When they locate worms, diggers will toss them into either a bucket or cooler, which they proceed to fill throughout the tide. Diggers typically use a three- to five-gallon bucket for bloodworms, which can handle being crowded, and a cooler with a modified handle for sandworms, which need a bit more space. Many sandwormers will tie a small plastic container, often those used for instant coffee, to their coolers so that they can keep any bloodworms they come across while digging. The two species must be diligently kept apart or bloodworms will quickly begin preying upon the sandworms. Some diggers will also pull a plastic sled to put their cooler, hoes, and other gear in while they work.
Wormers typically dig from two and a half to four hours each tide. When the tide reaches too high to continue digging, harvesters will rinse their worms with saltwater at the flats to remove any excess mud. From the flats, diggers bring their product to a worm dealer’s shop where they count the worms into trays, typically 125 to a tray. Any worms that are too small to be marketable or were cut or damaged during digging are placed into a cull return bucket. After the bulk of a shop’s diggers have finished counting their worms, the dealer will typically ask one of his diggers to return the culled worms to a local mudflat, in hopes that they will recover and grow to marketable size before they are dug again. Back in the shop, the dealers pack the marketable worms into boxes lined with newspaper and rockweed before shipping them to markets in Boston, New York, California, and Europe. Both species are used for live bait in saltwater sport fisheries including flounder, saltwater bass, porgy, and dollar fish (Eldridge, 2010). This fishery supports both year round and seasonal diggers, the latter of which harvest worms as supplemental income in the early months of the year when the boat work required by other fisheries is too dangerous.
Searching for and Finding Worms
Many worm harvesters form groups that they call “worm crews,” which consist of diggers—typically two to five—who all travel to dig together and typically sell to the same dealer. Diggers in the same crew will bounce ideas off of each other and split the cost of gas. By using their collective knowledge, worm crews can often work together to dig a higher quantity or quality of worm. There is a certain safety and security in digging with others; it allows wormers to pool resources and get by during slow periods.
Diggers frequently emphasize the importance of being able to travel throughout the state to find worms, which their worm harvesting license gives them full permission to do. Much of this is because worms “come up” to the top layer of the mud at different times in different portions of the state. Harvesters have long memories and ecological knowledge about the behavior of worms, conditions in the flats, and when and where to harvest.
Much of the movement throughout flats appears to be driven by heat. The temperature of the mud is nearly isothermal—or uniform in temperature—in early mornings, but the upper layer is about 10°C warmer in the afternoon in summer (Miller and Smith, 2012). There are some semi-predictable patterns over the spring, summer, and fall, in which worms rise to the surface of the mud in the spring, move back down in the summer heat, and come up again in the fall as the temperatures cool.
Organizing Around the Fishery
In 2014, worm industry members established the Independent Maine Marine Worm Harvesters Association (IMMWHA)—an industry group that advocates for the marine worm industry in legislative and research settings—largely in response to LD 1452, “An Act To Allow Municipalities with Shellfish Conservation Ordinances To Request Permission To Prohibit Marine Worm Harvesting.” This legislation was proposed by clam management committees in Midcoast and southern Maine and would have allowed municipalities with a shellfish conservation ordinance “to apply to the Department of Marine Resources to request a prohibition on marine worm harvesting” on flats with conservation closures for reseeding or green crab control gear such as nets, traps, or fencing (Friends of Penobscot Bay, 2014). This proposed legislation represents the most recent debate in a long-standing conflict between the clam and worm industries over differences in management (Kanwit, 2015). While worm harvesters can travel anywhere in the state, clams are managed through a co-management system where jurisdiction over the clam resource is delegated to town clam committees that confer with the DMR to manage their mudflats individually. Unlike wormers, clammers need to purchase both a state clam license and meet the requirements to purchase a license in their particular town. This difference in harvestable range—along with the reality that the two industries overlap in physical space on the flats—has historically produced conflicts.
In hearings for LD 1452, the testimonies submitted in favor of the bill (Friends of Penobscot Bay, 2014) claimed that marine worm harvesting negatively impacts juvenile soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria) despite scientific evidence to the contrary (Beal and Vencile, 2001). Public hearings drew hundreds of participants from both industries, including many frustrated worm harvesters, resulting in the bill being renamed to “An Act To Protect Areas in Which Shellfish Conservation Gear Has Been Placed for Predator Control and Habitat Enhancement Purposes and Establish a Municipal Predator Control Pilot Program” (Kanwit, 2015). This reframing focused the conversation on preventing the disturbance or damage, by either clam or worm diggers, of netting and traps placed to control the predation of invasive green crabs instead of simply allowing towns to close flats to worming as part of their shellfish management programs. The bill was passed after this reframing, and the tension between the two industries appears to have been assuaged slightly through the process.
More recently, uncertainty over use of Acadia National Park’s (ANP) mudflats for worm harvesting has provided an impetus to continue the IMMWHA. Although federal regulations typically prohibit commercial harvesting within national parks, ANP had historically not enforced these regulations, and commercial harvesting of worms and clams on park mudflats has been widespread. But after a ranger required a digger to dump his worms in the Schoodic Peninsula portion of the park, the issues of harvest rights and access to park mudflats were thrown into focus, and leaders of the association began meeting regularly with park staff. To codify access rights for marine harvesters, among other issues, the Acadia National Park Boundary Clarification Act was introduced to the 115th Congress (2017–2018); however, the Senate did not pass the bill prior to the end of the session. The bill was reintroduced to the 116th Congress (2019–2020), where it was incorporated into the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which has been passed by both houses and signed by President Trump. Part of this bill “shall allow for the traditional taking of marine species, marine worms, and shellfish, on land within the Park between the mean high watermark and the mean low watermark in accordance with State law” (GovTrack, 2019). This legislation is unprecedented for a national park in that it explicitly allows and protects commercial harvest within its boundaries in order to align its management more closely with the surrounding state lands. In Maine, according to a colonial ordinance that dates back to the 1600s, “fishing, fouling, and navigation” are explicitly allowed within the intertidal, despite the land itself typically belonging to the upland landowner. In the context of this legislation, “traditional” refers to those fishing activities that have been taking place in Maine for many years and carry cultural significance in the region.
Despite these efforts, the worm association reports low participation from the industry. According to the leadership of the association, there are currently only about 40 registered, paying members. Moving forward, the IMMWHA is focused primarily on maintaining the association so that the industry continues to have an organized body to represent the fishery in legislative settings. They are also working to coordinate more research efforts by the DMR, partially funded through the Marine Worm Fund, into the biology of marine worms—including recent genetic work and two cull return studies—and the effects of their harvesting strategies.
Looking to the Future
Worm harvesters rely on access to intertidal mudflats to go to work. Many of their access points are through public land such as municipal boat launches or municipal, state, or national parks. However, many other access points have historically been through private land. Access to the coastline through municipalities and private land is becoming more and more challenging along the coast, as it has for many industries that rely on working waterfronts. Historically, more of the coast was open woodlands and permissible trespass was far more common and accepted. But increasingly, these coastal properties are being sold to new owners with whom the historic arrangements no longer stand. The industry has also lost access points because of diggers leaving trash, being loud early in the morning, and shining lights when it is still dark outside.
While some property owners do respect historic access points and allow harvesters to access flats through their land, these relationships are largely up to individual diggers to maintain. To cope with some of these access challenges, there are far more diggers using boats to access the flats than ever before. When they do take boats, diggers typically launch from municipal or public boat launches, anchoring their boat while they dig the tide. While this method avoids having to work with landowners, it can also shorten the amount of time that diggers can spend digging since they have to be able to get back out to their boat. If they continue digging for too long, the tide will rise high enough that it becomes challenging to walk back to where they anchored their boat on the flat.
Along with these changes in access, wormers are also reporting that there has been a statewide decline in the number and size of bloodworms and sandworms since an industry high point in the 1980s. Diggers propose many causes for this decline, such as the reduction in ice cover, green crabs, milky ribbon worms, or overdigging. Increasingly, dealers are also facing restrictions on shipping worms, as concerns over spreading invasive species limit the use of rockweed as a packing medium. Particularly coupled with a reduction in the number of young people entering this industry, questions have been raised about the long-term future of this industry that has long been a prominent piece of Maine’s coastal communities.
As the future of the industry becomes less certain, many harvesters have called for increasing management and research efforts. Historically, collaboration between the worm industry and the DMR has been limited, with a lack of funding preventing much exploration of new management alternatives or research avenues. In interviews with worm harvesters, they expressed questions around populations fluctuations, the potential impacts of invasive green crabs on the resource, and differential growth rates between flats. The lack of knowledge on these topics limits the opportunities for self-management and largely precludes any additional management efforts by the DMR. As the industry continues to adapt to changing conditions, increasing research on marine worm ecology and population dynamics will be critical to building the capacity for innovative management strategies.
Despite fears of decline, worming remains an important industry in coastal Maine. After 90 years of history in the state, the marine worm industry is still an open fishery with low initial investment in gear, making it an accessible fishery for harvesters all along the coast. Although there are few diggers who rely solely on worming, the industry forms an integral part of the income portfolio of many coastal Mainers, particularly in the height of summer when the market can handle all the worms that diggers can sell. And since this fishery has expanded to include a winter and an early spring market, it has opened greater opportunities for fishermen to support their income in the slow season. For Maine’s fishing communities, worming will remain an integral part of making a year-round living from the sea.
For the origins of the marine work fishery in Maine, and the biology of bloodworms and sandworms, please refer to Fisheries Then: Marine Worms.
Eldridge, E. 2010, August 11. Worming: A big deal in Downeast Maine. The Working Waterfront, http://www.workingwaterfrontarchives.org/2010/08/11/worming-a-big-deal-in-downeast-maine/.
Friends of Penobscot Bay. 2014, March 7. Maine bill to let towns limit marine worm digging passes Marine committee with amendment, https://penobscotbay.blogspot.com/2014/03/maine-bill-to-let-towns-limit-marine.html.
Kanwit, Kohl. 2015, January 31. Regarding LD 1452 “An Act To Protect Areas in Which Shellfish Conservation Gear Has Been Placed for Predator Control and Habitat Enhancement Purposes and Establish a Municipal Predator Control Pilot Program.” Report to the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources. Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Maine Department of Marine Resources. 2019, February 19. Historical Maine fisheries landings data, http://www.maine.gov/dmr/commercial-fishing/landings/historical-data.html.
Maine Department of Marine Resources. Marine Worms 13-188 C.M.R. ch. 28, (2014).
Miller, R. J., and S. J. Smith. 2012. Nova Scotia’s bloodworm harvest: Assessment, regulation, and governance. Fisheries Research 113:84–93.
As part of a senior project at College of the Atlantic, the author interviewed more than a dozen wormers and worm dealers, whose stories and perspectives added great value to this piece.