If you are planning on using sand worms for bait this summer, you may want to have a backup plan. Many tackle shops in the Northeast have had difficulties acquiring quality ones this year.
Sand worms, which are typically 6 to 8 inches long, are known to be excellent bait for striped bass and flounder. These worms are in high demand during saltwater fishing season, with some bait shops estimating they account for around 30% of total bait sold during the summer months.
Commercial sand worm harvest is concentrated in Down East Maine. Diggers labor strenuously to harvest the worms, which can only be dug during low tides on certain mudflats. In optimal conditions, a few hours of work can result in a couple hundred dollars of income for a digger. This part-time work was once a solid source of income for many in Maine, but lax regulations and years of high demand have led to overharvesting.
According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, around 255,000 pounds of sandworms were harvested in 2013, compared to the roughly 950,000 pounds harvested back in 1973.
While demand outpacing the supply has caused a shortage of sand worms, the reason for a decline in sandworm quality is tougher to explain. (Many shops have described them as being too mushy, falling apart when touched and almost liquefying in their containers.)
One explanation is that long-time diggers who are no longer seeing a good return on time spent harvesting are abandoning the trade, leaving only inexperienced diggers to harvest the worms. These diggers are less likely to store the worms properly.
Others maintain that competition from the shellfish industry is hurting the sand worm populations. Since clams and sand worms are usually found on the same mudflats, vibrations caused by large shellfish barges are thought to have a negative effect on the worms’ availability and quality.
Farm-raised sand worms could help meet the demand of Northeast anglers. In 2003, a British company called Seabait, aided by a $500,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, set out to establish an indoor aquaculture project that could farm-raise sand worms. The company contended it would be able to produce high-quality worms of universal size and color, but it faced substantial resistance from members of the commercial digging industry. As political pressure mounted, the grant money ran out and the company eventually went into receivership, ceasing to exist.
If you find yourself unable to purchase quality sand worms, there are other options. For flounder and striped bass fishing, clams are a suitable substitute. If you are fishing tube-and-worm rigs for striped bass, try substituting Berkley Gulp Alive Sand worms for the real thing.