- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Move over, "Frankenfish." Hello, "nuclear worm." The Vietnamese import is the latest nonnative species giving Maryland biologists the willies.
The bright pink, nonradioactive marine worm given its nickname by local anglers and also referred to as a "ragworm" or a "magic cord" has been used as bait by local anglers for more than five years, has hundreds of tiny legs along its side and can grow up to 5 feet long. Preliminary studies indicate the marine worm namalycastis abiuma may carry deadly bacteria from its homeland, including cholera.
There is concern that the alien bacteria carried by the worms might thrive in local fisheries and pose significant harm to humans and wildlife.
"There could be vibrio strains that have evolved in the ecosystem," said Mike Slattery, the coastal program coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay field office of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services. "Conceivably, these can be more resistant to conditions here."
Both toxic and nontoxic vibrio bacteria strains have been found in the nuclear worms in other parts of the world. But preliminary data have yet to reveal kind of bacteria the local worms carry. If harmful bacteria are present, the worms have a much higher chance of upsetting the ecosystem than does a predatory species like the northern snakehead fish.
"They have the largest chance of invasion," said Timothy Mullady, a research biologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Anne Arundel County.
"With microorganisms, you don't see them. You don't even know that they are there," said Mr. Mullady, who has studied the worms for about five years. "We don't think they'd be able to survive around here."
The nuclear worms, sold in small packages for about $7, come from the inner stitches of coconut palm roots in Vietnam. They can survive for extended periods of time out of water, Mr. Slattery said.
Unlike the snakehead fish, the nuclear worms can only survive through summer in this region. The worms cannot live in temperatures below 65 degrees and area bait retailers only sell the worms during the summer.
"There's no undue cause for public alarm," Mr. Slattery said. "But anytime you introduce nonnative bacteria, there's high risks that go into upsetting the balance of the ecosystem."
Charles Ebersberger, the manager of Anglers Sports Center in Annapolis, said the media are responsible for making the nuclear worms to be a bigger deal than they really are.
Mr. Mullady said he said he hopes to finish his report on the local worms' bacteria by the end of the year. He has researched the worms as a side project using about $12,000 in funding.
"They've done research on it, and they haven't found anything to be wrong. Do I think the media needs to jump in? No," said Mr. Ebersberger, who has sold the worms for more than six years. He sells about 500 packs, each containing one to four worms, a week.
Along with wildlife officials, Mr. Ebersberger points out that almost all kinds of bait, including some species of earthworms and other marine worms such as bloodworms, carry some kind of bacteria.
"There's bacteria in every kind of bait, bacteria everywhere," he said. "You probably don't even want to know what's on my tongue."
Because of the increasing interest in invasive species, Mr. Slattery said, his department plans on requesting additional funding next year to further study the nuclear worms and other species like the snakehead. Although sometimes exaggerating, he said, recent media attention raises awareness of the threat nonnative species pose to the environment.
"The issue of native and nonnative species has been brought to the forefront," he said.
A scientific panel will convene today in Annapolis to discuss strategies for handling the hundreds of northern snakehead fish in a Crofton pond. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is expected to ask for additional legislation surrounding the introduction and containment of nonnative species.
The current punishment for introducing nonnative species, a small fine, may not be enough to discourage people in the future, Mr. Slattery said. But in many cases, the people letting alien species into the environment may not deserve punishment, he said.
"Most of the time when these things are released into the wild, it's just ignorance," Mr. Slattery said. "I don't think it's appropriate to punish people."
As for selling the worms, Mr. Ebersberger said he doesn't plan on stopping unless he is told otherwise. He said the worms have become a favorite of fisherman.
"It's a great bait for the money; it lasts a long time," he said. "The public wouldn't have any problem with this if the media didn't blow it out off proportion. I think the only reason you are seeing this is because of the snakeheads.
"Now those are dangerous."

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