GOULDSBORO — Think about the Maine fishing industry, and a few iconic products spring to mind.
Lobster, of course, is the state’s best known and most valuable fishery, with harvesters last year landing more than 121 million pounds of the tasty crustaceans, worth nearly $511 million.
Softshell clams, dug by hand on the state’s miles of mudflats and a big part of the shore dinners sold each summer to thousands of Maine visitors, are the state’s second most valuable fishery. Last year, diggers harvested some 9.2 million pounds of softshell clams worth more than $22.5 million.
Elvers are another high profile, high value fishery. With buyers paying harvesters $2,000 per pound or more for the tiny, transparent juvenile eels, last year, elver landings of 5,259 pounds brought the fishermen more than $11.4 million.
And then there are marine worms – not the subject of picture postcards or touted by state’s Office of Tourism but still Maine’s fifth most valuable fishery.
Working a couple of hours on either side of low tide, the state’s 700 or so licensed worm diggers wade out onto tidal flats along the coast and harrow the mud searching for two different kinds of polychaetes, bloodworms and sandworms.
Last year, the diggers landed some 396,000 pounds of bloodworms worth about $6.25 million and 206,000 pounds of sandworms worth about $1.57 million. That’s just about $7.8 million for marine critters that most people have never heard of, or thought of, unless they angle for saltwater fish.
Fred Johnson, president of the Downeast chapter of the Independent Maine Marine Harvesters Association, recently described what, it turns out, is a big international market for Maine worms.
“It’s sports, indirectly,” Johnson said, using an old Maine term for recreational fishermen. “In the saltwater fishery for sea bass, stripers [striped bass], flounders and blues [bluefish], that’s the bait of choice.”
Melinda Boumans owns the Gouldsboro Enterprise bait shop in South Gouldsboro, for many years run by Joe Boyd. She buys worms from “a couple of dozen solid diggers.”
Last week, Boumans said that bloodworms are “known by fishermen as a sustainable bait for stripers,” and that there is a “developing interest” in using Maine worms for bait in the inland bass fishery.
According to Johnson, North Carolina and the rest of the mid-Atlantic states provide about one-third of the market for Maine worms. The rest are shipped to diverse locations, both domestic and foreign.
According to Johnson, a big market for Maine worms exists in Europe, with carefully packed bloodworms and sandworms regularly air shipped to buyers in Spain, France (particularly Normandy on the English Channel), Spain and other Mediterranean countries.
The price diggers receive for worms – particularly bloodworms, which at around $.25 apiece, is twice as much as sandworms – is at an all-time high. But there is some concern about the continuing abundance of the resource.
In 2002, diggers harvested 682,994 pounds of bloodworms and 434,624 pounds of sandworms. Since then, landings have declined steadily. Last year, landings were about half those amounts.
The worm industry also faces external threats. In the western part of the state, municipal shellfish committees are trying to control the wormers’ access to the flats in the name of clam conservation. Downeast, wormers and clammers alike are enjoying what may be only a temporary truce in their battle with Acadia National Park over whether they may dig on flats inside the park’s boundaries.