Worm farmers wriggle into US market

British worm-breeding expertise has crossed the Atlantic to head off a shortage of bait among U.S. anglers and keep South America's booming fish and shrimp farms supplied with food.

Seabait Ltd, a high-tech worm farming operation set up by scientists at Newcastle University in the UK, has launched a subsidiary at Franklin, Maine.

Stocks and quality of 'wild' worms are running low in Maine as the traditional industry of digging them from the sand struggles to keep pace with demand.

Seabait (Maine) LLC, the first commercial worm farm of its type in the USA, will help ensure that American sea-anglers have a plentiful supply of bait as well as supplying frozen worms for export to shrimp and fish farms, especially those in South America where the industry is expanding rapidly.

Seabait has set up the Maine operation with the help of a development loan of up to 485,000 dollars from the Maine Technology Institute, on the basis of matched funding from the parent company, which is now seeking further venture capital for a large-scale expansion programme.

The subsidiary aims to build up annual production to 150 metric tons of ragworms (known as sandworms in the USA) - that's about 40 million worms. Its parent company currently produces about 50 metric tons, the majority exported to 20 countries.

Seabait, a research 'spin out' company, was established in 1985 at Lynemouth on the Northumberland coast. The business retains strong links with Newcastle University's School of Marine Science and Technology and has invested two million dollars in research over the past few years.

High-tech worm breeding techniques include cryogenics to freeze worm embryos for storage and using 'waste' hot water from a nearby power station to keep sand beds at the perfect breeding temperature. Several commercially important steps have been protected by patent.

This year, Seabait won two of Britain's top business awards, the Queen's Awards for Enterprise,

Contact: Peter Cowin
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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