by Monaca Noble
“Free live bait!”
Those were the words that echoed out during August and early September of last year, when the Marine Invasions Lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) gave away hundreds of bags of bloodworms to Maryland fishermen. We’re doing it again this spring. Why would an environmental research center give away hundreds of dollars worth of worms?
The bloodworms sprang out of a project to stop invasive species. Live bait, such as bloodworms and the algae used to pack them, is often imported hundreds or thousands of miles away from the fishing hole where it is eventually used. In many cases the animals used as bait are not native to the region where the fishing actually occurs. For example, the bloodworms that we gave away (Glycera dibranchiata) were originally collected in Maine and distributed to bait shops across the country. The native/non-native status of these worms is unclear in many of their shipping destinations.
In addition, the algae used to pack the worms (pragmatically termed “wormweed”) provide a microhabitat for many hitchhiking organisms, such as snails and crabs. The algae keep these species moist and healthy during transit even though they may have to travel vast distances before reaching their final destinations.Live bait shipments have already helped many new species infiltrate San Francisco Bay and other ports on the U.S. West Coast. To determine if they also present a threat on the east, the invasions lab is investigating the baitworm trade from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic. Whitman Miller heads the Invasions Lab “wormweed” team, with research associates April Blakeslee and João Canning-Clode and postdoc Amy Fowler. With funding from the Maryland Sea Grant, the four researchers designed a study to uncover how the diversity and abundance of organisms could change en route.
Starting last summer, Fowler and Blakeslee, with a team of volunteers, interns and colleagues, painstakingly sorted through hundreds of bloodworms and many pounds of algae in search of hitchhiking organisms. Each week, they looked though algae and worms shipped directly from Maine as well as those sold in local bait shops along the East Coast from Delaware to North Carolina. In addition, they seasonally surveyed five mid-coast Maine sites for abundance and diversity of organisms from places where baitworms and wormweed are known to be collected.
Overall, the team aimed to discover how the distance the bait traveled and the length of time it was transported and stored affected the abundance and diversity of possible hitchhikers along the route. So far they’ve detected amphipods, snails and even larvae of European green crabs hiding in the algae.Of course this left the lab with more bloodworms than it would ever be able to use. To keep them from going to waste, they enlisted the help of Arthur Carlton-Jones, a highly motivated 13-year old Boy Scout from Troop 185 in Salisbury, Md. Arthur is working towards becoming an Eagle Scout and earning the William T. Hornaday Award for natural resource conservation – along with every other merit badge possible.
He helped the lab give away free bloodworms to interested anglers. After they were thoroughly cleaned and bagged, Arthur and his father, Michael, drove to various docks in the early morning hours to offer the free bait to fishermen. Bloodworms run roughly a dollar a piece, so Arthur said most fishermen were happy to take them off the lab’s hands. While chatting with them, he also gave them information about invasive species and how to dispose of bait properly (throw it in a trash can).
The project is still underway. Starting this May, the team is switching into offensive mode, testing ways to get rid of some of the invaders hitchhiking in the algae. Click here for more info on invaders that infiltrated the Chesapeake through the live bait trade.