Seabait Ltd. in Franklin is the country’s first

worm farm.

PORTLAND (AP) – The market for sea worms, which are dug from muddy tidal flats and coveted by anglers as bait, is notoriously inconsistent. Price and availability fluctuate based on factors like the weather and tides.

Now a British company is aiming to bring order to a market worth about $8 million in Maine last year by opening what’s billed as the nation’s first sea worm farm.

Seabait Ltd., which already operates a worm-farming operation in England, has been conducting research in the eastern Maine town of Franklin for about 18 months.

The firm hopes to be selling worms within a year and a half, and its long-term goal is to be producing 150 metric tons, or about 40 million sandworms, annually, said Peter Cowin, who’s running Seabait’s U.S. operations.

That would have a major impact on the existing sea worm market.

The entire production of sandworms in Maine last year was 197 metric tons. Together with bloodworms, which are generally considered interchangeable by customers, the total market size was still only 507 metric tons.

Seabait plans to sell some of its worms to fish and shrimp farms in South America, but Cowin said they will also help fill a void in the U.S. market caused by a declining supply of worms plucked from the mud by diggers.

The potential competition worries many of the 1,055 licensed worm diggers who work the tidal flats up and down Maine’s coast.

Sea worms trail only lobster, groundfish, salmon and softshell crab in the worth of their annual landings in Maine.

“A lot of people are going to lose their jobs if this is allowed to happen,” said Ed Hagan of Jonesport, who’s president of an association of worm dealers.

But Cowin said he believes demand for sea worms currently outstrips supply, and the marketplace is big enough to support Seabait’s operation without any loss of jobs.

Statistics lend credence to the company’s argument. Landings of bloodworms and sandworms have dropped from around 700 metric tons a year in the mid-1970s to just 200 metric tons in 2000, according to the state Department of Marine Resources.

Though stocks rebounded last year to their highest levels since 1985, there are still complaints about the worms’ quantity and quality.

Peter Koutrakis, who has run Pete’s Bait and Tackle in Salem, Mass., for 28 years, said he’s seen a decline in both volume and quality over the decades.

“The more you take out and don’t give the beds a chance to recover, the worse it’s going to be year after year,” Koutrakis said. “Cultivated worms … will take the pressure off the flats and allow them to recover.”

While sea worm landings have been inconsistent, demand for bait has been buoyed by the rebound of striped bass prized by anglers, Cowin said.

Federal statistics show that the volume of striped bass exploded from 300 metric tons in 1989 to 5,800 metric tons nine years later.

“Striped bass has been making the biggest comeback of all time,” Cowin said. “It’s the biggest one since Lazarus, really.”

The idea of growing worms on farms, as Seabait does inside stacked indoor tanks in Maine, isn’t exactly new.

People have been raising night crawlers commercially for perhaps 100 years, said Alan Benoy, co-owner of Happy D Ranch in Visalia, Calif., which sells worm starter kits and informational materials.

Seabait began farming worms back in 1986 in Northumberland, England. Eventually, it carved out a niche for large, premium worms, Cowin said. He predicted a similar outcome in the United States.

Mike Hastings, who runs the nonprofit Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center in Orono, says diggers’ concerns about Cowin are misplaced.

“He did not put any worm diggers out of business in England, and he doesn’t expect to over here,” said Hastings, whose center rents incubator research space to Seabait.

On the Net:

AP-ES-08-14-03 1845EDT

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