The Battle over Maine's Sea Worm Trade

Traditional Diggers Fear Being Edged Out by High-Tech Farm

Worm Tray

hide captionA close-up of worms scooped into trays at the Moosabec worm dealership on Maine's Beale's Island.

Enlarge image.
Chris Arnold, NPR News
Danny Brooks

hide captionDanny Brooks, 49, has been digging for worms in mudflats for most of his life. He uses a pitchfork-like rake to turn the mud over, then plucks the worms out.

Chris Arnold, NPR News
Peter Cowin

hide captionSeabait founder Peter Cowin stands next to tanks with young, growing worms at one of his company's U.S. operations in Maine.

Chris Arnold, NPR News
Diggers Counting Worm Catch

hide captionDiggers count out worms they're about to sell to their local worm dealer, the Moosabec bait company. The worms are packed in boxes full of seaweed and shipped out to bait shops all along the East Coast.

Chris Arnold, NPR News

When it comes to the biggest fisheries products in New England, most people might think of lobsters or clams, not worms. But sea worms -– big slimy ones -– are the fourth most-valuable creature fished off Maine's coastline.

The worms make excellent fishing bait and sell for top dollar at bait shops along the East Coast. Around 1,000 licensed worm diggers in Maine make their living by wading thigh deep in coastal mud to gather them. For many, worm digging is a family tradition going back several generations.

But now an aquaculture businessman is setting up a worm farm with help from the state. As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, long-time diggers fear this newcomer could cost them their way of life.

The worm farm is the brainchild of Peter Cowin, a British entrepreneur who got the idea to grow worms commercially while working on a doctorate in worm biology. Cowin founded his company, Seabait, in the United Kingdom, where he now sells sandworms to bait shops as well as fish and shrimp farms around the world, which use the worms as feed.

With the help of a half-million dollar loan from Maine, Cowin is currently building a Seabait aquaculture facility in the state. Maine sees aquaculture as a potentially big industry that in the future could create many well-paying jobs.

Cowin says worldwide demand for worms is rapidly out-pacing the supply in the wild, so it makes sense to farm worms before the resource is depleted. Maine officials say there are signs that this is starting to happen, with some diggers reporting a drop-off in the number of worms.

"We need to save the fishermen, but we also won't have any fishermen if we don't have any resource," says state Sen. Dennis Damon, who chairs Maine's Marine Resources Committee. "So we need to protect the resource as well. And this might be that protection."

Damon and others think Maine's worm diggers could learn from Cowin if they work together, suggesting that Seabait's technology could be used to seed worm beds in the wild. Still, many worm diggers along the coast are having a hard time understanding why Maine is helping Seabait expand into the United States.

"It's the talk of the town, in the restaurants or anywhere that anyone gathers -– create 50 jobs and take away 500. It doesn't make sense," says Allan Alley, a digger who sells his catch to the Moosabec worm dealership on Maine's Beale's Island. About 20 diggers bringing in their catch on a recent day say they each can make $1,000 in a good week. Moosabec did half a million dollars in sales last year. Alley thinks the worm farm could hurt his whole community, where many people already struggle to make ends meet.

"My father dug, I've dug and my sons dig," Alley says. "It's a way of life down here, and it employs a lot of people, not just the diggers — the workers that help pack the worms, the weed pickers, box makers. If this guy gets online and undercuts price, sells to the same bait dealers that these people do, we're going to be out of a job. He'll put us under. That'll be it."

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