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Research Finds White Worms an Inexpensive Food Source for Aquarium Fish

Posted January 23, 2018

Ornamental aquarium fish like the clownfish Nemo and his pal the royal blue tang Dory one day may be dining on high-quality yet inexpensive white worms grown in New England. New research from the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire has found that live white worms are well-suited for the ornamental aquaculture industry and could be an emerging commercial industry for the region.

Elizabeth Fairchild, research associate professor of biological sciences, studies the commercial viability of white worms for aquaculture. White worms are small worms that are easily grown in terrestrial systems but can survive in both fresh and full-strength seawater. They wriggle and attract predators, and do not impair water quality when added to aquaculture systems, making them ideal live feeds for cultured aquatic species.

Ornamental aquarium fish like the clownfish one day may be dining on high-quality yet inexpensive white worms grown in New England. Image credit: Nick Hobgood.

Fairchild’s experiment station-funded research aims to develop “modern” white worm agricultural procedures. Historically white worms were used with great success to feed farmed sturgeon fry in the former U.S.S.R., but today commercial scale production no longer exists. She said updating white worm production using 21st century techniques could lead to commercial scale production to produce food for numerous farmed aquatic species.

“White worms show great promise as a live feed for a diverse set of cultured organisms during some period of their development, including freshwater and marine fishes, as well as for some crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. In particular, there is high interest from all sectors of the aquaculture industry to utilize new feed sources, including white worms, as more and more aquatic species are being cultivated,” Fairchild said.

UNH researchers conducted experiments to evaluate how low- or no-cost byproducts affected white worm production and nutrition, and if adding enrichments changed the fatty acid profile of the worms, making them a more nutritious feed. They evaluated if live white worms harbored diseases, which would put aquaculture facilities at risk. They distributed almost 250,000 white worms to facilities in the United States in exchange for feedback on their experiences using the worms.

“Based on stakeholder input, the interest showed by most ornamental fishes the worms were offered to, we think the best potential for using white worms is as a diet for ornamental fishes,” Fairchild said.

Ornamental culture is a growing sector in the aquaculture industry, valued at close to $30 million in Florida alone in 2012, which helps supply organisms to the 700,000 private aquaria in the United States. While protocols have been established to rear many of the “typical” aquaria fishes like damsels, dottybacks, gobies, and blennies, there is a strong market demand for production of other fishes like tangs, wrasses, and butterflyfish.

“For many of these latter species, feeding regimes have yet to be worked out yet they responded very favorably to live white worms. Judging from our experiences with supplying live white worms to ornamental aquaculturists, white worms may help with expanding the opportunities to culture these trickier species,” Fairchild said.

While the majority of the ornamental aquaculture industry does not occur in New Hampshire, much less New England, there could be a service provider business opportunity for the Granite State. Fairchild said white worms likely can’t be grown cost-effectively in the South since the worms do not do well in tropical climates, and it would be expensive to air condition a large worm warehouse facility. But the worms grow quite well under New England room temperature environments.

“If we can figure out a cheap way to deliver the product – the white worms – to the clients, then this could result in a new New England industry. Maple syrup is a good analogy: maple syrup can’t be produced in the South – it’s only produced in northern areas like New England and New Hampshire – yet southerners put it on their pancakes too,” she said.

Source: University of New Hampshire

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