The humble bait worm wriggling on the hook at the end of an angler’s line may be considered a low-value resource.
But in the first global assessment of its value and impact, University of Portsmouth researchers have revealed it to be an industry worth nearly £6 billion per year.
Bait worms are found to be many times more valuable than premium seafoods for human consumption. For example, blood worms retail at roughly £150 per kilogram in the USA – more than four times the price of lobsters.
Dr Gordon Watson, lead author of the research from the University’s Institute of Marine Sciences, said: “This is the first assessment of its kind in the world highlighting the extraordinary value of worms. To think they are more valuable than costly delicacies like lobster and oysters is quite astounding.”
The researchers assessed three UK-based bait worm fisheries and analysed published literature to produce their global calculation. Using these data the team also estimated that the UK market alone is worth £142 million.
However, the prized nature of the bait worm means it has a significant cost to the environment. Globally around 120,000 tonnes are extracted from coastal areas each year.
Dr Watson said: “Extraction has a significant physical impact, both through the removal of the bait worms and the turning over of shore sediment. The huge amounts removed at local, national and global scales has an impact on wading birds and other protected species and habitats.
The researchers used remote CCTV cameras to monitor bait worm collectors at three popular sites on the south coast of England – Portsmouth, Chichester and Pagham Harbours – and found that on average they removed 1.4kg of worms per person per hour.
Dr Watson said: “We hope our findings provoke people to take action to fully assess these fisheries and ensure they are managed effectively for the future.”
The paper is published today in the Fish and Fisheries journal.