Bait farming and imports

It is estimated that sea angling activity in the UK currently uses at least 1,000 tonnes of bait worms per annum. It is impossible to quantify this trade, because so little of it is recorded or declared, but market surveys indicate that some 500-700 tonnes of bait worms are dug for personal use and 300-500 tonnes of worms from commercial (including ‘black economy’) sources enter the retail trade. Bait worms entering the retail trade are derived from wild-dug and farmed sources in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The value of this industry is high. The table below presents the commercial value of the main bait species in the UK, which figures suggest that the UK bait market is worth between 25 and 30 million per annum (including mollusca and crustacea). King ragworm Nereis virens represents at least 8 million of this total. This is comparable with the baitworm market in other parts of the world. The commercial bait digging industry in Maine, USA (see Appendix) produces about 200 tonnes of baitworms a year for domestic use and export to several countries, and Japan imports about 600 tonnes a year of bait worms a year from around the world.

Commercial value of common angling bait species

Bait species Price paid to collector* by shop Price paid to shop by angler
Peeler crab Carcinus maenus 20-25p/crab (casual collector)

35-40p (professional collector)

50-55p per crab (occasionally 35p)

70p per crab for Devon peelers

Black lug Arenicola defodiens 80p to 1.80 per 10 gutted and packed worms 2.20-3.80 per pack of 10 gutted worms; 12/lb in South Wales (number/lb varies)
Blow lug Arenicola marina 8-10 per 100 worms 2.20 per pack of 20 worms
Ragworm Nereis virens (farmed) 8 + VAT/lb, farmed bait from Holland. 2.5-2.75 per quarter pound (incl. VAT).
* Higher prices are paid to the professional collectors, who supply shops regularly, than to casual bait collectors. Prices vary considerably around the country according to local availability and season. So much bait goes through unreported trade that prices paid to collectors varies considerably and accurate figures are very difficult to obtain.

There is, naturally, considerable commercial interest in increasing supplies of farmed bait worms for the retail trade. Currently, retail demand for bait greatly outweighs supply, particularly at times of year when weather and tide conditions make bait collection difficult, wild stocks are at naturally low levels, and demand for certain target angling species is high. Farmed bait, currently mainly comprised of the king ragworm Nereis virens, but soon to include lugworms Arenicola marina and/or A. defodiens, could potentially supply virtually all of this demand. The environmental benefits that may be gained from increased bait farming and a reduction in bait digging activity are considerable. Many anglers state that they would prefer to purchase cultured bait rather than dig their own, if supplies were of high quality, reliably available, and reduced the environmental impact of angling activity.

It was estimated in 1985/86 that the retail trade in England and Wales sold some 140 to 150 tonnes of king ragworm N. virens per year (about 37 million worms, worth up to 5 million at prices of about 12-15p per worm, Cowin (pers. comm.)). The numbers of lugworm (Arenicola spp.) supplied (at about 10p each ten years ago) will have greatly exceeded this. These worms were obtained mainly from wild sources in south coast harbours, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands. By the end of 1998, the annual retail turnover in bait worms (from farmed and wild-dug sources) was thought to be in the range of 300-400 tonnes (Tony Smith pers. comm.). Existing bait farms are unable to meet this demand.

Two main existing suppliers of farmed bait were identified in the UK. The larger of these is Seabait Ltd., set up in 1986 on a power station site in Northeast England (where warm water supplies were available), to produce the king ragworm N. virens. This is the most suitable species for farming: fast growing, a popular bait, and easy to breed in artificial conditions. Seabait produced in excess of one million six inch worms (five tonnes) from this site in 1989, at a retail value of 2.25 per 80g pack (containing 16 worms), or 28 per kilogram. This production rose to about 30 tonnes a year in the late 1990s, with a retail value of 750,000. Seabait is now starting production through a licensee in Ireland, and anticipates production of 37 tonnes next year from both its sites, including some production of lugworm. The UK market requires worms of 6-9 inches long, or 5-8 g weight, which take 6-8 months to grow. Seabait also exports to the Mediterranean where the market prefers one to two inch worms as bait for the very small seafish commonly caught in Southern Mediterranean countries, and these can be produced in about three months.

A new king ragworm N. virens farming site is currently being established in the UK, and plans to open in 1999 under franchise from Topsy Bait of the Netherlands. This site plans an initial turnover of 75 tonnes in its first year, increasing to 300 tonnes after 3-4 years of operation. It will be capable to rearing ragworms to saleable size in just two months. Topsy Bait currently exports from the Netherlands to nine countries, and is unable to meet demand from its present site.

Of the other widely used bait worms, the lugworms Arenicola marina and A. defodiens have a more complicated life cycle than N. virens and are more difficult to cultivate (the more valuable and larger black lug A. defodiens may be more suitable than A. marina). Research into introducing these species into cultivation is now well advanced and Seabait will be selling Arenicola in 1999. Breeding of white ragworms Nephtys species is also difficult to achieve. Research is nevertheless underway to attempt to culture white ragworms and peeler crabs for the retail market. With the use of artificial hormones to induce moulting, it should be possible for a continual supply of peeler crabs to be provided.

Developments in the culture of bait species provide important potential for the artificial restocking of depleted bait beds using locally-caught brood stock. Seabait has expressed a strong interest in becoming involved in the sustainable management of bait stocks in this way.

A number of non-native polychaete species may have life cycles and growth rates which make them more suitable candidates for farming than Arenicola marina and other native bait worms. The commercial returns from introducing such species to the bait market in Britain could be very large, but the probability of introductions to the wild would be high, either through discharge of farm tank effluents or the use of live worms for bait. Such introductions would be in breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (without a licence). Developments in the culture of non-native species should be monitored very carefully, and actively discouraged.

In addition to the possible introduction of non-native species as farmed bait, wild-caught worm species are already being imported to Europe for use as bait and could potentially become established in the wild as a result (see table below). For example, the bloodworm Glycera dibranchiata is imported to France from the USA (Maine) and huge quantities of an unknown number of polychaete species are imported from wild stocks in China, Korea and Taiwan (where some bait is farmed) to European countries, where imported baits are preferred (Peter Olive, pers. comm.).

These imported baits are not yet been used to any great extent in the UK, and it would be advisable to ensure that this situation continued. There is a long history of introductions of non-native species to UK waters, and the impacts of some of these introductions are now well understood. They include competitive displacement or predation of native species, alteration of natural habitats, and damage to fisheries. Additionally, the introduction of valuable non-native species may result in the initiation of collection activity targeting these species in areas that were formerly undisturbed. Large predatory polychaete worms would be a particularly undesirable addition to the UK marine fauna, and their establishment in the relatively warm water of south coast harbours and estuaries is of particular concern.

Wholesalers, retailers and anglers should be informed of the dangers of introducing non-native species to the marine environment through using live baits (which survive falling off the hook or being discarded at the end of a fishing trip) and the legislation that prohibits the release of such species.


Main commercial Polychaete bait species (wild stocks) (from Olive 1994).



Production origin





Nereis virens




USA (Maine)

USA (CA, FL), France



UK, France, Italy, Spain



UK, France, Italy, Spain


Nereis diversicolor


Perinereis cultrifera




Perinereis nuntia




Perinereis brevicirrus


Japan, USA, Europe


Glycera dibranchiata

USA (Maine)

USA (Gulf & West coast states)


Nephtys hombergi






Marphysa sanguinea


Japan, Europe, USA


Italy & Portugal

Southern Europe


Marphysa leidyi




Onuphis teres




Lumbrinereis cf impatiens






Arenicola marina

UK, Netherlands, France & Ireland


(From Olive 1994, citing personal observations, private market surveys, Creaser et al. 1983, Choi 1985, & Gambi et al. 1994.)

Acknowledgements: Peter Cowin and Peter Cadman, Seabait UK; Tony Smith, Topsy Baits; and Peter Olive, University of Newcastle, generously contributed their knowledge to this section.

Next section                     References