Thinking Outside the Bait Box
Research yields new growth in Maine marine worm
Ah, the Nereis virens. The common
sandworm. Take a look at that mug. Think it's not adorable? Oh, but it
is. Irresistible, even, to striped bass and marlin, flounder and
grouper, and most other saltwater fish.
The sandworm's value to fishermen all but makes up for the
less-than-charming characteristics of this burrowing, biting species of
marine worm that is traditionally retrieved from mudflats during hours
of backbreaking digging.
That's why, for the past three years,
research has been under way in Franklin, Maine, 10 miles inland, in an
effort to capitalize on the intrinsic value of sandworms and to develop
the first commercial sea worm aquaculture operation in the United
States. The aquaculture pilot project at the University of Maine's
Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) mitigates the
physically demanding labor required for harvests because the sandworms
are grown indoors, maintaining a constantly available, consistently
quality product for an economically viable business.
Today, Seabait Maine LLC, the company that owns the worms and is
developing its technological know-how with UMaine, sells out of its
sandworm stocks in advance. The wholesale price: about $30 per pound.
This fall, the Maine branch of Seabait Ltd., in the United Kingdom plans
to break ground on a new facility that will eventually increase
production 20-fold and raise awareness of UMaine's marine worm
aquaculture research around the world.
The result of collaboration and a synthesis of state-of-the art
technologies is a system that will be "technically and economically
viable, and will provide a real opportunity for Maine to add new jobs
and productivity," according to Nick Brown, manager of operations at
In academe, scientists nobly pursue the wonders of the world. They're
also driven by supply-and-demand economics. Take Viagra. Research that
made possible the first drug for erectile dysfunction developed out of
high blood pressure research in academic medical centers. In another
economic sector, the timber industry's slump helped make UMaine's wood
composites and forestry stewardship research crucial. Now the university
is researching ways to use the forest to ease the energy crunch, another
CCAR takes a similar approach. One company in residence there is growing
the first generation of halibut on land, in part because there's a
growing demand for the fish and because there are increasingly fewer
stocks in the sea. Seabait is filling a similar niche, providing
high-demand fishing bait and food for shrimp farms.
The Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Maine Technology Institute and
UMaine invested in Cowin's innovation to create a fully commercial worm
"Everyone we've encountered in Maine has been willing to lend us a
helping hand to bring in new investment, create new jobs and develop new
technologies that don't exist anywhere else," says Managing Director
Cowin spent most of his boyhood in New England. In 1981, he went to
UMaine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, with an idea to farm
marine worms. He went off to school in England, and four years later, as
an undergraduate at Newcastle University, started his company with his
father, Kenneth Cowin, and a faculty mentor, Peter Olive.
"For the first decade it was a matter of survival," Cowin says. "A lot
of businesses went out of business trying to do the same thing. We had
the technological backup of the university (Newcastle)."
Last year, Seabait Ltd., in the UK produced more than 50 tons of worms
and sold them in more than 30 countries. It has five patents in Europe
and the U.S., with several more pending.
Removing worms from their natural habitat and expecting them to thrive
in a world where it never rains, the sun never shines and no other
creatures exist is always a challenge.
"When you farm an essentially wild organism, they need to be happy. In
fact, more than happy, because ideally you want them to grow faster than
in the wild to reduce the time to harvest," Brown says.
Cowin and his team scientifically scrutinize the worms at every stage of
life — from eggs through adulthood. They study reproduction, nutrition
and other factors essential to growing worms and other aquaculture
Among their findings: the worms self-clean their tanks, leading the
researchers to hypothesize that perhaps they could clean tanks of other
species, lowering both the cost of worm food and tank cleaning; the
worms are high in omega 3 fatty acids, making them a healthy food
source; and sea worms might one day join their distant cousins, leeches,
in medical applications, because elements in their blood compare
favorably with the blood of humans.
Seabait's UK operation is a unique aquaculture setup, using waste heat
from a local power station to help the worms grow out of doors.
The more advanced climate-controlled Seabait Maine facility in Franklin
looks like a large, open dormitory with stacks of bunk-like tanks
running almost the full length of the 150-foot building. The lights are
dim. It's quiet. And the familiar smell of saltwater suggests what lies
in the tanks is aquatic.
Swimming and crawling through a thick slurry of sand are the worms. (Seabait
won't disclose the ingredients of the gritty habitat; the recipe is
intellectual property.) With a controlled environment, no other
competition for food, and lack of predators and pathogens, Seabait
Maine's sandworms grow faster than those at the UK facility, and five to
six times faster than those in the wild.
CCAR's indoor recirculation technology, along with Seabait's technology,
helps create and control the growing conditions. Cowin grows his worms
to meet market demand, 6–8 inches long. That takes about five to six
months, he says, compared to two to three years in the wild.
That's a much different picture than what's happening in the wild, where
the sandworm and bloodworm industry in Maine is feeling the effects of overharvesting. One Maine company in the sandworm and bloodworm business
notes on its Web site that when it started in 1950, an average tide
would yield 4,000 worms; now the average is 550, forcing diggers to take
the small worms before they reproduce.
Such a decrease in the natural resource quickly affects other
businesses, like the one owned by Pete Santini. The well-known fishing
supply retailer and fishing guide in Everett, Mass., who has another
operation in the Galapagos Islands, buys sandworms because they are one
of the most popular baits available.
About seven years ago, Santini says, he started receiving shipments of
wild worms that were inconsistent in size — around 3 inches long, less
than half the length the market demands. Santini's sales depend on
receiving consistent size and quality. For him, the controlled
environment at CCAR provides the consistency needed in the thousands of
sandworms he sells.
Today, Seabait's market includes seasonal fisheries customers and
aquaculture seafood businesses around the world. Eric Pinon works for
Service Aqua LLC in Miami, Fla., which distributes feed for shrimp and
fish farms throughout the continental U.S. and Canada, in Hawaii, and in
Central and South America.
When he started selling Seabait worms, his aquaculture customers saw
vast improvements in the broodstock, compared to those fed pelletized
"You don't have to be a brain surgeon to find the difference between one
tank fed with quality Seabait worms and one not," Pinon says. Compared
to other worms, he estimates up to 15 percent more reproductivity from
Seabait's Nereis virens.
But not everyone, of course, is sold on Seabait. Maine wild worm diggers
whose families have been harvesting for years have voiced concerns that
companies like Seabait could put them out of business.
It's true that while wild harvests dwindle, Seabait's production is
expanding. The current facility incubating at the CCAR produces 5 tons
of worms a year. The new facility initially will produce about 65 tons,
then, ultimately, 100 tons or more.
But, Cowin says, there's room for more suppliers. Wild Maine marine worm
landings are around 500 tons a year; demand on the East Coast is about
700 tons, not counting exports to Europe or for the aquaculture feeds
markets, Cowin says.
Globally, with the meteoric rise in aquaculture — with shrimp farming as
its fastest-growing segment — the demand for marine worms is in the
thousands of tons.
With wild stocks depleting, operations like Seabait might be necessary
to sustain the marine worm industry. If supply can't keep pace with
demand, shrimp farmers will likely find other feed sources, which could
lock out all marine worm suppliers — wild and cultured — for a long
Santini likens it to the fishing industry, in which some species have
been overfished. "This," he says of Seabait, "will take the pressure off
of wild stocks."
by Clinton Colmenares
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.