DEBLOIS, Maine - Right now, Robin Brooks' basement should be full of worms - thousands of them getting ready to take a plane ride to tackle shops up and down the East Coast and then onto the pointy end of a fisherman's hook.
It's peak season for fishing, but the owner of Maine Bait, a mom-and-pop business, doesn't have many bloodworms to sell, and what she does have are often small and always expensive. A dozen fat worms will set a fisherman back as much as $14, up from $4.50 just five years ago.
Anglers are amazed how such a mundane creature became such a rare and pricey specimen.
"The cost is just ungodly high, and they're so shabby. You get two or three good ones in a dozen and you consider yourself lucky," said Rich Novotny, a longtime Chesapeake Bay fisherman and executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Association.
"I used to think there wouldn't be any worms around when my children are grown," said Brooks, sitting on the stairs leading to her basement. "Now I'm not so sure there will be worms around for my own business."
Maine is the world's No. 1 supplier of the bloodworm, a versatile bait prized by fishermen for catching everything from white perch to flounder to striped bass along the Atlantic Coast and its tidal estuaries.
In a state known for its catches of lobster, cod and haddock, the worms rank as the state's fourth most valuable fishery, bringing in $7.9 million a year. About 900 licensed diggers and 44 bait houses like Brooks' supply them to Mid-Atlantic distributors and large tackle shops.
"We call it the forgotten fishery," said Michael Crocker of the Northwest Atlantic Maine Alliance, an environmental watchdog group based in Saco. "People can imagine a world without worms, and it's OK with them."
That's the direction the bloodworm seems to be headed recently. Although an important marine asset, it is little understood.
Found from Nova Scotia to Florida in brackish areas between freshwater tributaries and sea water, Glycera dibranchiata has transparent skin and squirts red liquid - a neurotoxin - to debilitate its prey, typically other worms and small crustaceans.
Anglers who aren't careful know the bee-sting pain a bloodworm can inflict with the chompers protruding from its snout.
A decade ago, Maine diggers could harvest 2,000 bloodworms on a single low tide, each worm 6 inches to a foot long. Now their typical take is 200. The size of the worms is smaller, too, making them more fragile and prone to die in shipment, a quality problem not lost on fishermen.
"It's worse now than it was in 2001," said Dee Taylor, who counts and boxes up to 50,000 worms a week for T.G. Tochterman and Sons, an 89-year-old Baltimore tackle shop that serves Chesapeake Bay fishermen. "Fifteen years ago, we would have refused to sell what we get now."
Blame greedy worm diggers or environmental degradation or watermen dragging the mud flats for mussels. There's plenty of finger-pointing in every direction.
About four years ago, worm diggers, who are self-employed and seasonal, staged a series of strikes to get their pay increased to about 20 cents a worm. That resulted in an infusion of a few hundred diggers - "six-packers," as veteran diggers label them - and a spike in the harvest to a level not seen since 1982.
"The six-packers are looking for a couple dollars a day to cover their needs. They don't really have a stake in the future of the industry," said Tom Atherton, a digger from Bucksport and biologist from the University of Maine.
Brooks and other diggers say the state's two dozen commercial mussel draggers are responsible for much of the decline. The mechanical devices they use to scrape the flats can quickly turn the mud to a soupy consistency that ruins worm habitat.
But Peter Thayer, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says that while draggers are a problem, so, too, are the diggers, who "pound the same spot over and over again."
"I can't see how that isn't having an adverse affect," he said.
Responding to the shortage, diggers began harvesting year-round and taking juvenile worms of 4 inches or less, which scientists fear will hasten the population decline.
The work is virtually unregulated. Diggers buy a $43 license, promise to use only hand-powered devices and are prohibited from working the flats on Sundays. Beyond that, they are free to harvest what they want.
All to the detriment of the worm and the acceleration of its decline, say Brooks and others who want to see the state step in.
"Worms aren't glamorous," said Michael Crocker of the Northwest Atlantic Maine Alliance. "There isn't anyone clamoring to do something for them, like there would be for lobsters or cod."
Atherton, the digger and biologist, said the issue isn't about protecting the worm: "It's protecting the mud and the flats and the nutrients in the sediment. Everybody knows there's too many holes in the mud, but nobody wants to do anything about it."