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August 11, 2010
Article

Worming: A big deal in Downeast Maine

by Emily Eldridge

Digging worms is not considered a sought-after profession, since it is a job that promises stiff backs, mud-covered boots and hours of sweaty labor. Yet worming provides an income for many families in Downeast Maine.

There are two types of worms in particular that are sought after and harvested by worm diggers, sand worms and bloodworms. Sand worms are the larger of the two and have two teeth. Blood worms somewhat resemble earthworms, but they have four teeth, are paler in color and you can see their fluids flow through them.

These worms are harvested as bait for recreational fishing. The sand worms are used to catch flounder, saltwater bass, porgy, and dollar fish. Blood worms are sometimes bought by the pound, freeze-dried, ground up, and used for fish food.

Maine was introduced to the marine-worm trade by dealers from Massachusetts. Worming had once been popular in that state, but eventually the worms became scarce. Much like fish, worms move in schools, and migrate from place to place. With virtually no worms left to be dug in Massachusetts, dealers turned to Maine as a potential supplier.

Along the Maine coast worm businesses, or worm cellars, as they are called, can be found in Hancock, Blue Hill, Orland, Harrington, Addison, Jonesport, and Beals Island.

There are three worm cellars in Addison alone as Addison's mud flats are particularly good for digging. Diggers from Harrington, Columbia, Milbridge, Cherryfield, Jonesport, and Beals Island commute to dig there.

Crowley's Bait is one such Addison worm cellar. The business has been in the Crowley family since 1962. Keith Crowley Sr., dug worms for a dealer on Beals Island. That dealer couldn't get enough worms, so he had the elder Crowley buy for him in Addison. Eventually, Crowley started his own business, and in 1965, began dealing worms to George Saco of Massachusetts. Within the last decade, Crowley turned the business over to his daughter, Jean, who currently employs approximately 15 diggers.

Striper Bait, in Milbridge, deals in bloodworms. Owner Donnie Bayrd employs approximately 60 diggers, making him the largest bloodworm dealer in Downeast Maine.

Since worm diggers are self-employed, they can choose whether or not they dig on any particular day. However, in order to maintain employment, they have to reliably provide a steady supply of quality worms.

According to Donald Handy of Addison, the digging of marine worms is limited to just a few hours a day. The appropriate times to dig are an hour to an hour and a half before low tide, until an hour after low tide. Actual digging time depends on the size of the tide, and averages two to two and a half hours.

Digging worms requires a license from the state. Unlike clam diggers, who must also obtain a town license, worm diggers only need a state license. Since worms move from place to place, diggers often travel to different towns seeking the best spots.

Once dug, the worms are taken to the worm cellar, where the diggers count them out into mesh trays. Worms are counted 125 sand worms or 250 blood worms to a tray. Diggers must place a tag bearing their name in each of their trays, in order to track any short-counted or sick worms. If any worms are missing or they are sick and die, that digger must reimburse the dealer.

The next step in the process is the packing and shipping of the worms. The worms are transferred from the trays to cardboard boxes. The boxes are first lined with newspaper, which is then covered with seaweed. The worms are placed on top of the seaweed, and the box is then closed, tied up with twine, and marked for shipping. Blood worms require an additional wet newspaper to be placed on top of them to help keep them moist and prolong life.

Currently, Crowley's Bait ships sand worms to New York and Massachusetts. Once packed and shipped, the sand worms can last up to nine days in a cooler. Blood worms are shipped to Virginia, and can last up to a week. Generally, worms harvested along the coast of Maine are shipped to places along the East Coast, California and Europe. In the past, the Crowleys have shipped worms as far away as Spain.

The price paid for worms has risen steadily over the years. In the early 1960s, marine worm diggers earned $9 to $10 per 1000 worms. Historically, worm diggers have gone on strike frequently in order to drive up the price. Currently diggers get $120 per 1000 sand worms and $240 per 1000 bloodworms. Over the course of a season, a serious digger can earn up to $20,000.

New restrictions on recreational fishing are starting to limit the demand for worms as bait and shortening the worm-digging season. The season used to last from March to November. Now, the season starts in April and ends in the middle of October.

According to former Crowley's Bait owner, Keith Crowley Sr., the worst thing about being a dealer is, "having the diggers pushing you on one side and the buyers pushing you on the other. It's like being jam between two pieces of bread. But when everyone is happy, it's good."

Everyone seems to agree, however, that the best part of the worm business is the money. For the amount of time spent working, "the money is pretty decent pay," said Pinkham.

Emily Eldridge is student at Washington Academy and is a participant in The Working Waterfront's summer student writers program.

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