Worming His Way In

On a mid-winter day, environmental studies major Eben Sypitkowski ’05 found himself on the Sheepscot River at low tide, listening to a bloodworm digger talk about the social hierarchy among 23 cats who share quarters in his Wiscasset trailer.

“The guy had built ramps so they could get to the best perches in the house, like atop the fridge,” Sypitkowski says.

Many honors thesis students do rarified battle with ideas, atoms, and statistics. But Sypitkowski’s project, on most days, landed him in boot-sucking muck up to his shins as he researched the impact of bloodworm diggers on seven Maine tidal mud flats.

Maine’s thousand or so worm diggers are a hardy, hard-living, and ragtag bunch. The Harpswell digger who owns a $500,000 seaside home is nearly a mythic figure; but many are like the 19-year-old who’s spending every worm dollar to support a 2-year-old daughter, or the 16-year-old who has lived alone since his father left him three years before.

In the caste system of Maine fisheries, worm diggers are the “untouchables,” Sypitkowski says. On the other hand, the work offers a curious economic safety net for those not seeking conventional jobs. Like the man with the cats: He studied at the Naval Academy and UMaine before deciding that “clock time and he did not get along,” says Sypitkowski.

To do his science research — such as measuring the area of mud dug each day, the numbers of worms taken, the worm density per flat — Sypitkowski regularly spent the night in his Mazda minivan and arose at 4 a.m. to follow the diggers.

Other days, he got a bird’s-eye view by taking aerial photos of the flats, six along the Sheepscot and one on Maquoit Bay. Using GPS technology, he superimposed the photos onto a map to assess how much mud the diggers turned over each month and how often they dug each flat. Mud is mud, especially from 1,000 feet, so Sypitkowski installed 80 markers in the flats to provide spatial reference points in the photos.

Maine lobsterers and clam diggers face strict regulations — some imposed by the state or town, others self-imposed by social custom — but worm diggers roam their flats at will. State licenses are cheap ($43), unlimited, and available to any Maine resident regardless of age (Sypitkowski saw diggers from age 8 to 72). Good diggers know which flats will “mud out” depending on tide amplitude and can find mud even when there’s ice across the rivers. But the real talent, Sypitkowski says, “is the incredible endurance it takes to keep your butt to the wind and your hoe in the mud when your back is killing you.”

While they talk about bygone 2,500-worm days, these days a digger will pluck from the muck about 325 worms during each low tide, for which they get 30 cents each. Working two tides, diggers can gross $200 a day.

Depletion of the worms, prized by anglers and shipped worldwide, is a worry, though the diggers, occasionally exhibiting a skewed libertarianism (like the guy who complained about taxes while collecting disability), rarely agree about state regulation.

Environmental studies topics often crisscross science, social science, and the humanities, so while Sypitkowski is unsure of his ultimate conclusions, he’s found faculty support for his broader inquiries. “When I brought in a bloodworm hoe for an honors presentation, they called it a ‘cultural artifact,’” he says with a grin. “They’re interested.”