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A Lively Traffic in Worms
Frank Graham Jr.
September 19, 1966
Thousands of hard-working Maine diggers, packers and dealers turn ugly-looking sea worms into dollar signs
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September 19, 1966

A Lively Traffic In Worms

Thousands of hard-working Maine diggers, packers and dealers turn ugly-looking sea worms into dollar signs

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Among the floral wreaths on view at a recent funeral near the Down East locality where I live was one whose attached card read "With Deepest Regrets, from the Wormers." This inscription was neither a macabre joke nor a melancholy reference to man's fatuous pride. It was a simple and sincere expression of sympathy sent by a prominent segment of the community.

A wormer is a man who digs worms. His is as noble a calling as that of the furze cutter on Egdon Heath, and far more profitable. His labors help to support his family and the local grocer in a good many depressed Maine coastal towns where the nonworming citizens frequently ride out the hard times on salt cod and last year's potatoes. He also provides saltwater sport fishermen in distant parts of the country with a product they find as desirable as Maine lobster—fresh bait in the form of succulent (a fish's view) and mean (a man's view) marine worms.

Worms are numbered among Maine's vital natural resources, like pulpwood and seascape painters. When the weather is favorable, a strong-armed wormer should be able to earn $200 a week. Though a man hardly ever gets rich banking on the unpredictable Maine weather, the sale of worms last year brought nearly half a million dollars into Washington County (where I live, which is the easternmost point in the U.S.) and adjoining Hancock County.

Maine's mud flats abound in two different species of marine worms. Though both are prized as bait, biologists know very little about their lives and habits. One is the bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), a darkly mottled pink annelid six or eight inches long, which vaguely resembles a night crawler. It derives its name from the bloodlike fluid contained in its body cavity. At rest, the bloodworm's mouthparts are soft and balloonlike, but when this structure is inverted, it displays four tiny pincers. Upon piercing the human skin, these pincers inflict a sharp pain, which their victims compare to a bee sting. Though some biologists incline to the belief that the bloodworm is a vegetarian, the venom it injects in the human hand, causing a rather spectacular swelling and discoloration, suggests that it paralyzes small sea animals before devouring them.

The other species is the sandworm (Nereis virens). Its flat body, eight to 18 inches long, is composed of a hundred or more segments. Tiny "paddles" project from the body to propel it through the water although, like the bloodworm, it spends most of its life burrowing in the mud.

To sponsor further research on these curious commodities, the state raised the price of worming licenses this year from $3 to $10. ( Maine had 1,015 licensed wormers last year, compared to 5,842 lobster fishermen.) The added revenue will be matched by a Federal grant.

In my part of the state we are nearly 150 miles along the coast from Wiscasset, a town which is the Wall Street of wormdom. There, worming has been carried on commercially for four decades. The important dealers who set the prices are clustered around Wiscasset and often import the more productive wormers from other points on the coast.

One often learns the ropes more quickly in the provinces, however, and it was with this in mind that I paid a visit to Addison, a Washington County town noted for its boatyards, sardine factories and worm dealers. The dealers are subsidiaries of the large combines around Wiscasset and Newcastle. I went to Addison chiefly to see Warren Dorr, who runs the local dealership for his father, Warren Sr., the biggest dealer in Wiscasset. Young Warren's home, a neat frame building, is not only his castle but his countinghouse. In the yard stood a toy poodle (alive), a couple of small tricycles and other indices of middle-class success. Warren himself stood waiting for me on the porch. He is a stocky man of about 30, crew cut, horny-handed and sparing of speech.

We descended to his cellar, a fittingly damp enclave whose darkness was relieved by a couple of electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Long trays covered several tables, and long, narrow cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere. At one of the tables a man was kneading a spongy, glistening mass. On closer inspection I saw that the mass consisted of hundreds of worms. He was counting them into the cardboard boxes with all the dexterity of those ladies who used to ladle out nickels in the Automat.

"When the diggers bring in the worms they count them out into the trays," Dorr said. "There's a screen in the bottom of the trays, and that drains the water off them. We pay the diggers $16 a thousand for sandworms, and $22 a thousand for bloods. We don't get many bloodworms in this particular area anymore. I don't know where they went. Maybe these biologists will use the extra money to find out."

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