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Forget About the Snakehead Fish, Here Comes the Nuclear Worm

WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought it was safe to go back into that snakehead fishpond behind the shopping center in Crofton, Md., now comes word of a new threat slithering into our environment.

It's big (5 to 7 feet long), it's bad (it can carry cholera), it's hot pink (nearly fluorescent) and it's coming soon to a bait shop near you. It's the Nuclear Worm (genus Namalycastis), Vietnam's biological revenge for all that napalm and Agent Orange 30 years ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on the case.

Shipped in via San Francisco, where it's probably just another lifestyle, the nuclear worm has been welcomed into Chesapeake Bay bait buckets like a bloodworm wired on Viagra. Born among the tropical roots of Vietnamese coconut palms, it needs no refrigeration and can live for days in icky contentment on the dashboard of your overheated car.

Rockfish suck it up like sushi. Is this something you're likely to step on barefoot one night when you're taking out the garbage?

"There are a lot of unanswered questions about these worms that cause us concern," says Mike Slattery of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay field office in Annapolis. "We caution anglers not to dump them live into the bay or its tributaries. But they are native to the tropics and it appears unlikely they could colonize this area."

That's for sure, says Mike Baldea, owner of Mike's Wholesale Bait in Gambrills, Md., the Wal-Mart of nuclear worms. "They can't survive below 68 degrees," he said. "I shipped in a bunch of them one spring a couple of years ago. It was an expensive lesson." Baldea caught the nuclear-worm bug six years ago when an importer passed along some samples to provide local anglers with more bait for the buck. One worm sliced into fish-bite-size pieces can power 40 or more fishhooks. Since then, he has presided over a nuclear explosion: $25,000 worth of business in the big guys last year, including wholesaling them to 20 other bait shops in Maryland. That's about 5,000 55-gram containers' worth. But sometimes that 55 grams contains just a single worm: 7 feet long and as big around as your little finger.

The problem with nuclear worms, says Slattery, is not the worms themselves but the bacterial baggage they bring with them. Early imports were packed in material found to contain the pathogen that causes cholera, though no cases resulted.

Since then, he says, stricter controls and different packing material appear to have eliminated that particular problem. But tests conducted this spring by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Anne Arundel County, Md., found that the worms and their packing material contained three species of the bacterium vibrio. One of them attacks oysters and can cause serious illness in people, according to the Baltimore Sun, which has been monitoring nuclear worm regulating agencies

Does this mean nuclear diswormament?

"We're not sure how much of a problem that is," Slattery says of the bacteria. "We need to get all the science in place to find out."

Baldea, whom Slattery praises for cooperating with every aspect of the nuclear-worm investigation, says his Vietnamese import is getting a bad rap. Biological tests have shown that vibrio bacteria are also present in the bloodworms anglers have baited their hooks with for decades, both on the Chesapeake and elsewhere, he says. "We've never had any problems from that," he says, "and nobody worries about it or even points it out. Everybody just picks on the nuke worm."

But Slattery says a mounting ecological concern over invasive species of plants and animals has caused new attention to the growing business of imported live bait and its possible environmental fallout. Who knows what doomsday scenario might be triggered by the brassy minnow (Hybognathus hankinson), the white sucker (Catostomus commersoni) or the hornyhead chub (Nocomis bigguttatus)? You can dial up more than 50 Internet sources for living things that wriggle, creep and crawl. They can be in your mailbox tomorrow via FedEx.

According to a 2001 report from Slattery's office, live-worm imports alone were a $70 million business in the United States from 1998 to 2000, though more than 90 percent of that consisted of nightcrawlers from Canada. Nuclear worms are a relative drop in the bucket, he says, and nobody really knows much about them.

Where did they get their name? Baldea's bait shop, Slattery says: "That was a bit of marketing genius from Mike." 

* Sun, 8/4/2002

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