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Illustration by Carrie Graham

Thinking Outside the Bait Box
Research yields new growth in Maine marine worm aquaculture


Motor mouth
Marine worm diggers are very familiar with the nasty bite sandworms can inflict.

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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 CCAR.

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 market-driven necessity.

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 farm.

"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 Peter Cowin.

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 species.

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, 68 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 food.

"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 time.

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
May-June, 2006

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