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Original Issue

A Lively Traffic in Worms

Thousands of hard-working Maine diggers, packers and dealers turn ugly-looking sea worms into dollar signs

Among the floral wreaths on view at a recent funeral near the Down East locality where I live was one whose attached card read "With Deepest Regrets, from the Wormers." This inscription was neither a macabre joke nor a melancholy reference to man's fatuous pride. It was a simple and sincere expression of sympathy sent by a prominent segment of the community.

A wormer is a man who digs worms. His is as noble a calling as that of the furze cutter on Egdon Heath, and far more profitable. His labors help to support his family and the local grocer in a good many depressed Maine coastal towns where the nonworming citizens frequently ride out the hard times on salt cod and last year's potatoes. He also provides saltwater sport fishermen in distant parts of the country with a product they find as desirable as Maine lobster—fresh bait in the form of succulent (a fish's view) and mean (a man's view) marine worms.

Worms are numbered among Maine's vital natural resources, like pulpwood and seascape painters. When the weather is favorable, a strong-armed wormer should be able to earn $200 a week. Though a man hardly ever gets rich banking on the unpredictable Maine weather, the sale of worms last year brought nearly half a million dollars into Washington County (where I live, which is the easternmost point in the U.S.) and adjoining Hancock County.

Maine's mud flats abound in two different species of marine worms. Though both are prized as bait, biologists know very little about their lives and habits. One is the bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), a darkly mottled pink annelid six or eight inches long, which vaguely resembles a night crawler. It derives its name from the bloodlike fluid contained in its body cavity. At rest, the bloodworm's mouthparts are soft and balloonlike, but when this structure is inverted, it displays four tiny pincers. Upon piercing the human skin, these pincers inflict a sharp pain, which their victims compare to a bee sting. Though some biologists incline to the belief that the bloodworm is a vegetarian, the venom it injects in the human hand, causing a rather spectacular swelling and discoloration, suggests that it paralyzes small sea animals before devouring them.

The other species is the sandworm (Nereis virens). Its flat body, eight to 18 inches long, is composed of a hundred or more segments. Tiny "paddles" project from the body to propel it through the water although, like the bloodworm, it spends most of its life burrowing in the mud.

To sponsor further research on these curious commodities, the state raised the price of worming licenses this year from $3 to $10. (Maine had 1,015 licensed wormers last year, compared to 5,842 lobster fishermen.) The added revenue will be matched by a Federal grant.

In my part of the state we are nearly 150 miles along the coast from Wiscasset, a town which is the Wall Street of wormdom. There, worming has been carried on commercially for four decades. The important dealers who set the prices are clustered around Wiscasset and often import the more productive wormers from other points on the coast.

One often learns the ropes more quickly in the provinces, however, and it was with this in mind that I paid a visit to Addison, a Washington County town noted for its boatyards, sardine factories and worm dealers. The dealers are subsidiaries of the large combines around Wiscasset and Newcastle. I went to Addison chiefly to see Warren Dorr, who runs the local dealership for his father, Warren Sr., the biggest dealer in Wiscasset. Young Warren's home, a neat frame building, is not only his castle but his countinghouse. In the yard stood a toy poodle (alive), a couple of small tricycles and other indices of middle-class success. Warren himself stood waiting for me on the porch. He is a stocky man of about 30, crew cut, horny-handed and sparing of speech.

We descended to his cellar, a fittingly damp enclave whose darkness was relieved by a couple of electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Long trays covered several tables, and long, narrow cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere. At one of the tables a man was kneading a spongy, glistening mass. On closer inspection I saw that the mass consisted of hundreds of worms. He was counting them into the cardboard boxes with all the dexterity of those ladies who used to ladle out nickels in the Automat.

"When the diggers bring in the worms they count them out into the trays," Dorr said. "There's a screen in the bottom of the trays, and that drains the water off them. We pay the diggers $16 a thousand for sandworms, and $22 a thousand for bloods. We don't get many bloodworms in this particular area anymore. I don't know where they went. Maybe these biologists will use the extra money to find out."

Each wormer is beholden to a single dealer, who keeps varying numbers of them on his payroll, according to the current demand for bait. In the spring, when the weather is bad and the demand low, a wormer may take only 1,000 worms off the flats on any one tide. Later in the season he will double that figure. Having counted the product of his day's labor into the trays, the wormer will advise the dealer of his total. Usually the man's word will be accepted, but in some cases an audit is indicated. A man caught cheating on his count may be told to peddle his worms someplace else.

The worms are then packed into the cardboard shipping boxes, which are lined with a cool, moist seaweed called rockweed. One box holds 125 sandworms or 250 bloodworms.

"That's because the bloodworms are much hardier," Dorr said. "The sandworms are made up of all those segments, and they break up if you're not careful."

Dorr has learned from the wholesalers in New York, Florida or California just how many worms he will have to ship out each day (they are in touch with each other regularly by telephone). His wife takes the boxes of worms by pickup truck to the airport at Bangor, which is about 75 miles from Addison. There she supervises the loading of the worms aboard the regular flights to Boston and New York.

Dorr gets $22 a thousand for the sandworms, and about $30 for the bloodworms. The city wholesalers pay the freight. In New York the wholesalers distribute the worms to the smaller bait shops, who sell them to the fishermen. Costs are variable, according to the season and the demand, but a fisherman on Long Island Sound may pay 70¢ a dozen for his worms. Since flounders, stripers and whitefish seem to relish either species, the fisherman keeps calling for more.

To dig marine worms requires a certain initial investment. The compleat wormer will need a hoe, a bucket or other container, a pair of hip boots and access to a small boat and motor to take him to the more isolated mud flats around the islands. The "hoe" is really a short-handled rake made of spring steel. It costs about $22 and, with good care, will serve the active wormer for three years.

The techniques for harvesting sandworms and bloodworms differ as widely as those of fishing for trout and catfish. Since the bloodworms arc found just beneath the surface of the mud but do not congregate as thickly as the sandworms, the digger must move rapidly, covering a great deal of ground, to meet his quota. He works with a wide hoe, or "chopper," that has eight tines. The sandworms burrow deeper into the mud, sometimes 12 to 15 inches, and the digger combs away the mud and bites down into the hard clay or sand with his narrower, six-tined chopper.

The worms are dropped into wooden buckets or boxes and carried about the Hats. In addition to his hoe and bucket, the serious wormer may own a light, which he clips to his cap for night digging. The light consists of a strong flashlight bulb operated by a six-volt storage battery kept in a case on his belt. It is a queer sight to peer offshore on a dark night and see dozens of tiny lights bobbing up and down on the mud flats one supposed were inhabited only by herons.

The wormers earn their money. Like Olympic swimmers, the big-money wormers burn themselves out quickly. "There was a fellow at Wiscasset who dug 3,750 worms on one tide," Dorr said. "But one day this year they had to haul him off the flats. He just toppled over." The act of making one's way, bent at right angles from the waist, through acres of gulping mud without occasionally taking time to straighten up is, understandably, devilishly hard on backs and stomachs.

Worm dealers have found another outlet for their product in the firms dealing in biological specimens. The current education boom has stimulated the market for marine worms. Because it has arteries, the sandworm is especially sought after by college laboratories, and Ben Emmons, a New Jersey dealer in biological specimens, makes his head-quarters at Jonesport, Maine during the summer.

What does the future hold for worms—and wormers? Testimony is contradictory. On some mud fiats along the coast heavy worming has apparently depleted the supply. Yet there are other flats in Wiscasset which have been dug heavily for 30 years without any significant change in worm populations. "Sometimes we've wormed a fiat steadily for a few days until it didn't look like there was one of them left," a Wiscasset digger says. "And then we've come back there a day or two later and found them thick as ever."

One of the purposes of the study just begun by the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries is to learn something about the movement of worm populations. Biologists mark the worms with silver nitrate pencils to keep track of them, just as, they have banded migratory birds. Biologists also want to know what heavy worming does to the mud fiats.

"When you keep turning over the mud," one of the department's wardens says, "you're likely to smother the clams and other small bivalves that ground-feeding fish and small crustaceans live on. Algae gets turned over, too, and it decays and forms acids in the mud."

In 1963 concerned people in the business founded the Maine Marine Worm Conservation Committee, but it remains to be seen whether this group will effectively police the flats. An area's long-range interests are often obscured when dollar signs keep flashing on and off. Last year some 1,508,000 pounds of worms (or about 65 million individuals) were harvested along the Maine coast, bringing the dealers' gross sales to $1,206,923. So the state will remain the bait capital of the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Its vast mud flats, uncovered twice a day by the considerable tides in the Gulf of Maine, provide the worms. Its economy, marked by the scarcity of other gainful employment along the coast, provides the labor.

Having devastated its great stands of pine, polluted its clam flats and overfished its lobsters, Maine now has a chance to redeem itself. If not—well, as Dorothy Parker reported after stepping on a worm:

"Aha, my little dear," I say,

Your clan will pay me back one day!