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What does the future hold for worms—and wormers? Testimony is contradictory. On some mud fiats along the coast heavy worming has apparently depleted the supply. Yet there are other flats in Wiscasset which have been dug heavily for 30 years without any significant change in worm populations. "Sometimes we've wormed a fiat steadily for a few days until it didn't look like there was one of them left," a Wiscasset digger says. "And then we've come back there a day or two later and found them thick as ever."
One of the purposes of the study just begun by the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries is to learn something about the movement of worm populations. Biologists mark the worms with silver nitrate pencils to keep track of them, just as, they have banded migratory birds. Biologists also want to know what heavy worming does to the mud fiats.
"When you keep turning over the mud," one of the department's wardens says, "you're likely to smother the clams and other small bivalves that ground-feeding fish and small crustaceans live on. Algae gets turned over, too, and it decays and forms acids in the mud."
In 1963 concerned people in the business founded the Maine Marine Worm Conservation Committee, but it remains to be seen whether this group will effectively police the flats. An area's long-range interests are often obscured when dollar signs keep flashing on and off. Last year some 1,508,000 pounds of worms (or about 65 million individuals) were harvested along the Maine coast, bringing the dealers' gross sales to $1,206,923. So the state will remain the bait capital of the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Its vast mud flats, uncovered twice a day by the considerable tides in the Gulf of Maine, provide the worms. Its economy, marked by the scarcity of other gainful employment along the coast, provides the labor.
Having devastated its great stands of pine, polluted its clam flats and overfished its lobsters, Maine now has a chance to redeem itself. If not—well, as Dorothy Parker reported after stepping on a worm:
"Aha, my little dear," I say,
Your clan will pay me back one day!