Feature Story                                                                  May 2012 

Bait Worms, Algae, Invasive Species, and Community Service

Arthur Carlton-Jones giving away baitworms during the 2011 Labor Day skipjack races on Deal Island in Somerset County Maryland. Photo by Michael Carlton-Jones.

“Free live bait”! Those were the words frequently used 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 fishermen in Maryland. And we’re doing it again this spring. Why would an environmental research center give away hundreds of dollars worth of bloodworms?

Live bait, like bloodworms and their associated packing algae, are often imported from hundreds to thousands of miles from the fishing hole where it is eventually used, and in many cases the animals used as bait are not native to the region where the fishing occurs. For example, the bloodworms (Glycera dibranchiata) that we gave away were originally collected in Maine and distributed to bait shops across the country, and the native/non-native status of these worms is unclear in many of their shipping destinations. In addition, the algae Ascophyllum nodosum var. scorporides, referred to as “wormweed”, which the worms are packed in provides a microhabitat for many hitchhiking organisms, such as snails and crabs, that keeps these species moist and healthy during transit even though they may have to travel vast distances before reaching their final destinations . Many species, including the algae itself, have become introduced to the US west coast (particularly San Francisco Bay) through the shipment and use of live bait, and bait boxes are still being shipped there today. Therefore, with funding from Maryland Sea Grant, supervised by Dr. Fredrika Moser, the Invasions Lab at SERC is using the Maine baitworm trade to the Mid-Atlantic region as a model system to determine the number and diversity of organisms transferred by live bait. The Invasions Lab “wormweed” team is headed by Dr. Whitman Miller, and the research is being performed and managed by Dr. Amy Fowler, a Postdoctoral Fellow at SERC, along with Dr. April Blakeslee and Dr. Joao Canning-Clode, Research Associates and former Postdoctoral Fellows at SERC.

Bait box shipped to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from a distributor in Maine. Photo by Dr. Amy Fowler Dr. Amy Fowler and Anne Phillip carefully comb through all the wormweed clearing in of hitchhiking organisms. Photo by Monaca Noble

Our Research

To determine if the transport of live bait could be leading to the unintentional introduction of hitchhikiing species to the Mid-Atlantic region, Drs. Fowler, Blakeslee, and Canning-Clode designed a study that assesses the survivorship and abundance of hitchhikers in baitworm/wormweed shipments along their journey from Maine to the numerous Mid-Atlantic bait shops in which it they are distributed. They suspected that many small organisms such as snails, clams, amphipods, or isopods that live in algae could be transported with discarded bait and wormweed and potentially pose a risk for unintentional movements of these organisms from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic. Starting last summer, Drs. Fowler and Blakeslee, along with a team of volunteers, SERC 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 distributers in Maine as well as those sold in local bait shops along the East Coast from Delaware to North Carolina (including Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Jersey). 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 for distribution. Overall, they aimed to determine 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 from source to bait shop. The project is still underway and many more shipments of worms and wormweed are expected this spring, but so far the project team has found numerous small organisms in the wormweed.

Community Engagement and Service

While the focus of the project is on the organisms associated with the wormweed, the SERC team was also collecting hundreds of bloodworms in the process. It seemed a shame to waste them, so after they were thoroughly cleaned, the worms were bagged and given away to interested anglers, along with information about how to properly dispose of bait and invasive species. They also enlisted the help of Arthur Carlton-Jones, a highly motivated 13-year old Boy Scout from Troop 185 in Salisbury, MD. Arthur’s goal is to become an Eagle Scout and earn every possible Merit Badge. In addition, Arthur is working towards achieving the William T. Hornaday Award, which is presented for distinguished service in natural resource conservation and is awarded to those that have made significant contributions to conservation. As part of his effort to achieve these goals, Arthur embarked on an outreach and education project working with Dr. Fowler and his SERC mentor, Tim Mullady, which aimed to reduce invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay. The main focus of Arthur’s project has been to educate the scouts and the fishing community about the transfer of invasive species in bait and the proper disposal of bait and bait packing material. Arthur’s first event was the Tri-County Bay Scout/Cub Scout District Roundtable at which he gave an oral presentation on invasive species as it relates to the “leave no trace” scouting principle (a video of this presentation is on his website). After that Arthur attended and gave out over 1000 baitworms and educational materials at several organized fishing and scouting events such as the Maryland Saltwater Sports-fishermen's youth fishing event, Camp Henson’s weekend fishing program, and a Labor Day weekend skipjack race on Deal Island in Somerset County Maryland, among others. He also talked with local fisherman in his community about invasive species and proper bait disposal. In addition, he created a website that details his effort on the project, an effort that he plans to continue this spring as new boxes of baitworms arrive at SERC and are cleared of all hitchhiking species.

Download our bait brochure for more information on invasive species in bait. If you have a fishing or scouting event scheduled for the spring that you would like Arthur or another member of the team to attend, please contact Monaca Noble at noblem@si.edu. In addition Sea Grant extension officers will be giving away baitworms and conducting surveys throughout the project area during late April and May.  


A sample of amphipods and snails found on the algae in bait boxes. Photo by Monaca Noble 

Larval European Green Crab (megalop - Carcinus maenas) found in algae in bait boxes from Maine. Photo from SERC.