Biologists fear Vietnamese bait could harm Md.

Nuclear worms might harbor foreign bacteria

July 15, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Like any good horror story, the northern snakehead saga already has a Maryland sequel in the pipeline: the Vietnamese nuclear worm.

Hot-pink and up to 5 feet long, the worms have quietly made their way from the brackish waters of Southeast Asian mangrove forests to bait and tackle shops around the Chesapeake Bay.

For anglers out to catch striped bass and white perch, the worms are everything they could want in a bait - fat, cheap and juicy, hardy in Maryland summers with no refrigeration needed.

Biologists, though, fear that nuclear worms - no one knows how they got the name - dumped from bait buckets into the bay could be an environmental nightmare, capable of harming humans and aquatic life. Untested before Vietnamese companies began exporting them in 1996, the exotic invaders might harbor bacteria from their native country, scientists say.

"These worms are spooky," said Julie Thompson, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay field office. "I've handled a lot of things, and I don't get creeped out. But these are nasty. I use surgical gloves every time I touch them, and I scrub up afterward."

Preliminary tests conducted this spring by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Anne Arundel County indicate Thompson has cause to be concerned.

The Smithsonian report said that the worms and the material they are packed in contain three species of the bacterium Vibrio, one of which attacks oysters and causes serious illness in people. An average of 15 people in the United States die each year from Vibrio vulnificus.

The center is conducting additional tests to determine if the worms contain cholera bacteria.

"We're dealing with a Third World country that lacks adequate sewage treatment, so of course we're concerned about cholera," said Thompson, who filed a request last month for money for a more in-depth study.

Scientists also fear that even if the nuclear worm isn't a health danger, it may become another unwelcome guest in Maryland, such as the voracious northern snakehead from the Yangtze River region of China or the equally ravenous European green crab.

State officials don't know how they'll rid a Crofton pond of the snakehead fish, and they're just beginning to devise a management plan for the crab - used as bait by bay and saltwater fishermen - which feasts on native shellfish.

Tackle shop owners such as Sue Foster in Ocean City are so concerned about the green crab infestation that they are using their shop bulletin boards and Web sites to warn anglers not to dump unused bait in the water.

"We have to make them aware that what they dump from their coolers or containers can have a lasting effect," said Foster, who is working with the state on its management plan. "Some of them just don't know or understand."

Nuclear worms are just one of the critters flooding U.S. ports under the lax laws covering live bait.

According to U.S. Customs, the total value of live worms imported into the U.S. exceeded $70 million from 1998-2000. All but about 8 percent of the imports came from Canada, which has the corner on the bloodworm market.

Importers are required to declare the contents of live bait shipments, but little is done to verify those claims. In the case of the nuclear worm, what importers called it did not square with what the federal experts examined.

Laws covering the importation of live bait apply only to earthworms; other organisms are unregulated. The Lacey Act, which gives the wildlife service authority to restrict animals harmful to people and the environment, does not extend to live bait.

"All we know is [the nuclear worm] is being shipped out of Vietnam to San Francisco," said Mike Slattery, Thompson's boss. "We don't know how or how many, and we don't know where they're going."

Slattery and Thompson have asked the risk assessment unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help in flagging and sampling worm shipments when they reach port as the first step in tracking the worm. They also would like to see the USDA require one-year importation permits for the nuclear worm until a comprehensive laboratory report is completed.

The major supplier in Maryland, Mike's Wholesale Bait in Gambrills, isn't required by law to do any documentation.

Company manager Mike Gripkey said an importer passed along some samples several years ago and urged the wholesaler to "see if you can do anything with them."

"They're no wonder worm," Gripkey explained. "But a guy comes into a bait shop and he can spend $7 for a dozen bloodworms or $7 for a big, fat nuke worm that'll last a couple of days. The nuke worm is more meat for the buck." Anglers cut it into pieces and can bait as many as 40 hooks with a single worm.

Sales gradually increased. In 1999, the wildlife service counted 10 Maryland shops selling them. The next year, it was 16 shops. Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania merchants are adding them to their stock, but states beyond the region have not followed.

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