Abating bait: Decline in prized worms threatens way of life

Dan Harrington makes his living unearthing marine worms by hacking away at mudflats with a tool that resembles the business end of an old steel rake.

He’s fine with the freezing weather, the pungent aromas and the occasional nip from an angry crab, but his latest problem is the big one — the worms just aren’t there like they used to be.

“A bad day is zero worms,” said Harrington, a second-generation worm raker. “A bad day is when you try out five, six different spots and don’t even make enough money to replenish the gas that you put in your tank.”

Harrington’s struggle, and that of his fellow wormers, has reverberations around the world. A mysterious drop in the harvest of two of the most popular worms for sport fishermen is proving expensive for anglers, perilous for bait shop owners and a threat to a way of life in Maine.

Maine harvesters are by far the U.S.’s largest suppliers of sandworms and bloodworms, twisty, fat critters that can grow longer than a foot and have teeth that inflict a painful bite. Wormers dig the wriggling creatures out of coastal muck so they can be sold to fishermen worldwide.

The worms are especially popular with American striped bass fishermen and in Europe. An October study in the journal Fish and Fisheries said bloodworms are the most valuable marine worm species on the retail bait market, and sandworms aren’t far behind.

The worms, which burrow into the mud and eat things like algae and microorganisms, are coveted as bait because they are…

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