Maine study finds lots of problems with rubber worms

rubber wormsThis is the final column in my five part series on the issues and problems surrounding the use of rubber worms for fishing. Today I’ll tell you about a study conducted by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that raised troubling questions about the use of rubber worms, and included lots of recommendations.

Here are the highlights from the executive summary of DIF&W’s report, presented to the second session of the 126th legislature on January 28, 2014, by Dana DeGraaf, DIF&W fisheries biologist. At the end of this column, I’ll present the agency’s recommendations, along with a few thoughts of mine.

Executive Summary

Discarded soft plastic lures (SPLs) have been documented in many Maine lakes by the Department and others; the ingestion of these SPLs by salmonids is a growing concern expressed by anglers and fisheries managers.

To the Department’s knowledge, there is currently one peer-reviewed manuscript specific to the effects SPLs have on freshwater health in Maine. The Department was not able to identify literature on the effects of non-biodegradable hooks on freshwater fish. Steel hooks typically oxidize and degrade in freshwater. PH and the oxygen concentration of water are main factors affecting the oxidization and degradation of stele hooks.

Manufacturers are not currently required to list the ingredients of SPLs which makes evaluating the effects of SPLS on aquatic biota difficult to determine.

The Department conducted a cursory field assessment and data review to determine if discarded SPLs in Maine’s freshwater lakes and ponds could be quantified. The Department also evaluated the degradation of a biodegradable SPL in freshwater.

  • Soft plastic lures were documented a higher occurrences in Region A waters than any other regional water surveyed (Regions A, B, and C).
  • Multiple piles of discarded SPLs (e.g., one pile = 10-20 individual SPLs) were observed at the toe of public boat ramps. This was indicative of anglers purposely dumping used SPLs after fishing and prior to trailering their boat out of the water.
  • The majority of SPLs observed in all regional waters surveyed were of the following variety: worms, twirl tail grubs, and lizards.
  • During the Departments Fish Stomach Content Database search, SPLs were documented in 5.2% of lake trout surveyed from Sebago Lake, Region A, between 1994 – 2003 and 3.2% of lake trout surveyed from Sebec Lake, Region E, between 1985 and 2008.
  • The Department documented SPL ingestion by other salmonids and largemouth bass between 2004 – 2012 in 22 southern Maine waters. Brook trout and lake trout had the highest occurrences of ingested SPLs.
  • During a SPL water exposure study, after 1 week, 1 month, and 8 months post-treatment, a popular sinking minnow SPL advertised as 100% biodegradable showed no signs of degradation.


In this report, DIF&W stated that, “Requiring the sale and use of only biodegradable SPLs is currently not a solution. There is currently no standard national or international definition for what constitutes ‘biodegradable plastic’ and SPLs specifically. Based on the information presented in this report, the Department does not recommend any legislation at this time.”

That effectively killed the effort to ban rubber worms or other SPLs. So what did DIF&W recommend? Well, quite a lot. Unfortunately, the agency has not followed through and implemented most of their recommendations. Here they are.


Actively support and participate in the development of public information and education materials to provide for increased public awareness of the potential impacts of SPLs on freshwater environments and fish species.

The Department could establish a process for public education and outreach regarding the effects of discarded SPLs and the process by which anglers should discard or recycle used SPLs. Education and outreach materials could be in the forms of permanent signage at boat launches, SPL collection boxes at boat launches for recycling, newspaper and television advertisements, and printed material in the fishing law books and on the Department’s website. For example, in the 2014 fishing lawbook, the Department discusses the effects of discarded SPLs, how to properly dispose of used SPLs,and how to rig SPLs for maximum hook retention.

The Department could encourage the general angling public to participate in SPL recycling programs such as the B.A.S.S. Re-Baits SPL recycling program. This could include providing SPL collection bags with each purchase of a Maine fishing license and/or advertising the Re-Baits program in print on the Maine fishing license. Additionally, Re-Baits collection canisters should be installed at more boat launches, including the lakes and ponds surveyed in this study.

The Department could encourage retailers and anglers in Maine to consider selling and buying only advertised biodegradable SPL products and encourage manufacturers to develop new alternatives that are made of 100% biological material (gelatin, fish/plan/mineral oils, etc.).

The Department could encourage local (state) manufacturers of recycled SPLs to advertise their products more widely, for example in the Department’s fishing lawbook as part of continued angler education and product promotions.

The Department could encourage retailers, fishing clubs, and tournament organizers to promote and educate anglers on improved approaches to retain SPLs on hooks. For example, a small o-ring or zip tie can be placed in the middle of the SPL, and the hook placed under the o-ring/zip tie. If the hook is pulled through the SPL, the o-ring/zip tie retains the SPL on the hook. SPL retention kits are available from retailers, however improved angler education may be needed to better promote this SPL retention strategy.


Support and encourage rigorous enforcement of state and local laws and regulations pertaining to littering of SPLs in freshwater environments.

The Fisheries Division could work with the Warden Service to raise awareness of litter issues caused by discarded SPLs in Maine’s lakes and ponds.

Department Initiatives

The Department could consider the addition of a new tournament permit requirement that would necessitate an SPL collection and recycling effort during each permitted tournament.

The Department has an established, standardized process to document the occurrences of ingested SPLs by salmonids. This is in the form of regional databases that document fish stomach contents during biological and creel surveys. The Department will continue to collect fish stomach content data from various waters throughout the State.


The tackle industry could be encouraged to continue to develop the advancement of SPL hook retention and SPLs that are less likely to be pulled off by fish after repeated use.

The MDIFW is currently working with the Department of Environmental Protection’s (MDEP) Surface Water Ambient Toxins program to develop a laboratory study focused on determining the chemical constituency of biodegradable and non-biodegradable SPLs and study the effects of SPL leachate (i.e. phthalates) accumulation if fish tissue. The MDEP has issued a Request for Proposals and received cost estimates from several labs capable of performing these chemical analyses.


I’ve invited DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and his staff to offer their reaction to this five part series, focusing on what they are doing about this problem – specifically, which of their recommendations have they implemented? If I get a response from them, I will share it with you.

I’ve also suggested to members of the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee that they request a follow-up report from DIF&W, including an explanation of what they’ve done on each and every recommendation.

I really think this problem is too critical to ignore. And given that DIF&W came up with a good series of recommendations, we should demand that they act on those recommendations. And here’s my final question: when do you start putting the health of our fish ahead of our own conveniences as anglers, or the business interests of national manufacturers?

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.