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MD considers reeling in use of ‘nuclear’ worms

  • By Associated Press on June 01, 2005
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A nuke on a hook is OK for now, but its days may be numbered as state regulators consider banning certain nonnative live bait from Maryland waters.

The nuclear worm, a bright pink Vietnamese import up to 6 feet long, is among the species fishery managers consider potentially harmful, along with certain crayfish and the tiny organisms hidden in the packing material in which live baits are shipped.

No restrictions have been proposed, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has been talking with anglers about the issue at meetings across the state in the past two weeks. “The basic Maryland regulation is, if you can get something into the state, you can put it on a hook and use it as bait,” said Steve Early, an assistant director of the DNR Fisheries Service.

He said the trouble starts when bait or bait boxes are dumped into the water, freeing nonnative species to possibly establish breeding populations. Some may become predators of native species while others may compete for the same foods. Either way, the newcomers alter the ecology in ways that may spell doom for native organisms. “In some cases, it’s stuff that would seem to be real innocuous, but in certain areas, it may be something you didn’t want,” Early said.

At least five states prohibit the importation of all live bait, and at least 13 have lists of prohibited species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nuclear worms first made headlines in Maryland in 2002 after northern snakeheads, a predatory invasive fish species, were found in the state, prompting the DNR to start looking at other aquatic invaders. The worms, used mainly for saltwater fishing, are marketed as a lower-cost alternative to bloodworms because one nuke can be sliced into more than 40 pieces. And unlike bloodworms, nuclear worms need no refrigeration; temperatures below 50 degrees can kill them.

Three years later, the jury is still out on whether the worms are a threat. A two-year study at the University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies concluded the worms probably won’t become established along Middle Atlantic beaches because the winters are too cold. But parts of the Southeast might be susceptible, said oceanographer Douglas C. Miller, who headed the study.

Miller said he also found nuclear worms remarkably tolerant of a wide range of salinity, from full-strength sea water to nearly fresh water. So the worms could survive, at least temporarily, in various Maryland waters, from the ocean to the Chesapeake Bay to its brackish tidal rivers.

Some bait retailers stopped selling nukes after hearing the initial concerns, including the discovery of cholera bacteria in some packing material.

“I was worried not so much about the Bay issue, but I was worried about somebody having a cut or something like that on their hands and fooling with these worms, that I could be held liable,” said Rick Warren of Warren's Bait Box in Glen Burnie.

Demand for nuclear worms has recovered because they’re a bargain, according to Mike’s Wholesale Bait of Gambrills. The worms retail for about $7, compared with $8 to $10 a dozen for bloodworms, according to another Mid-Atlantic dealer, Wilcox Bait & Tackle of Newport News, VA.

The current discussion in Maryland is focused on inland fisheries—lakes and streams—as opposed to saltwater fisheries.

Crayfish are also a favorite bait of river anglers, and the Maryland Invasive Species Council lists two types as species of concern. They are the virile crayfish and the rusty crayfish, both native to the Great Lakes.

Early said even native Maryland species can become problems if they are caught in one body of water and used as bait in another. White perch, for example, occur naturally in brackish water along the Atlantic Coast, but they have been found in some inland reservoirs in Maryland where they apparently were used as bait, Early said. They tend to overpopulate such settings, resulting in large numbers of stunted fish that Early said anglers don’t want to catch. “They’re just tying up part of the food chain and not providing much in the way of recreational management,” he said.

Limiting bait is tricky, though, as some staples are nonnative species. Early acknowledged that bloodworms come largely from Maine, and many of the night crawlers sold in Maryland are Canadian.

But Julie Thompson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis, said states should consider live bait restrictions as there are no federal regulations regarding aquatic bait. “The bait industry is just constantly changing. There’s constantly new products that come in,” she said. “It's very important that someone look at the species to determine whether it poses a risk to the environment.”

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