Are Squid Fisheries Intrinsically Sustainable?
    By Danna Staaf | October 17th 2010 02:15 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Danna

    Cephalopods have been rocking my world since I was in grade school. I pursued them through a BA in marine biology at the University of California...

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    The Squid Symposium ended on Friday, and on Saturday those of us who were still here in La Paz took a day trip to Isla Espiritu Santo, a gorgeous island where we snorkled in bath-warm seawater with sea lions, pufferfish, and other natural wonders. Various ideas from the conference spent the day fermenting in my brain (the hot sun helped) and now I'm going to take a stab at synthesizing some of them.

    Not too long ago, I wrote a post called Squid fisheries aren't instrinsically sustainable. There was an ellipsis after the statement, which softened it, but now I'd like to add a question mark.

    Is it possible that squid could be inherently sustainable? Squid produce huge numbers of offspring that grow very quickly into large adults and then produce more offspring. Squid populations tend to fluctuate drastically from year to year, and they're quick to take advantage of good environmental conditions. Everything in the ocean already eats them--whales, dolphins, sharks, fish, birds--so what's one more predator--man?

    Fishery biology talks are often doom-and-gloom: descriptions of species driven to the brink of extinction, fishing communities losing their livelihood, and so forth. By contrast, of all the symposium talks that discussed squid fisheries, none were dire. None were even concerned.

    One student documenting a slight decrease in average Humboldt squid size over ten years of data in the Gulf of California said, "I don't think this is due to overexploitation," and went on to suggest environmental factors that could contribute to such a trend. Later his advisor, Cesar Salinas, commented that the thousands of sperm whales in the Gulf eat many more squid than the fishermen could ever catch, implying that the mere idea of overexploitation is irrelevant.

    Sasha Arkhipkin, a squid biologist from the Falkland Islands, attended the symposium, and I took the opportunity to ask him about the Argentine shorfin squid fishery. Did he think it could have crashed due to overfishing? No, he said confidently, it's very difficult to overfish squid. He went on to mention the high growth rate, natural variability, and so forth, and suggested that the fishery probably crashed due to environmental conditions.

    The symposium's closing talk on "the world cephalopod fishery" was delivered by Chingis Nigmatullin, who has been working on squid and squid fisheries since the 60's. He told us that fisheries have already been established for nearly all the available inshore species of cephalopods*. He suggested that future development of new cephalopod fisheries would concentrate on oceanic species, of which he estimated there to be quite a significant biomass available. However, the technical and financial challenges of mounting such oceanic fisheries were, he supposed, going to prevent such development in the near future.

    I, for one, am relieved to hear it.

    It's true that we haven't yet driven any cephalopod species to extinction through overfishing. But it's also true that most cephalopod fisheries are quite young, and we really have very little information for many of them about real biomass--that is, how many animals are out there--without which it is impossible to conduct a proper assessment of the fishery.

    In the absence of this knowledge, it's extremely frustrating to see fisheries labeled "sustainable", something that apparently just happened for the Humboldt squid fishery in Chile:
    Friend of the Sea announces the certification of Seatec’s giant squid (Dosidicus gigas). Seatec is a premium supplier of calamari products under the BelOcean brand based in Chile.

    Jumbo squids are not overexploited in the Southern Pacific Ocean according to FAO and other assessments. They are actually considered abundant and impressive squid beachings have been frequently reported in Chile.
    There are no scientific assessments of the jumbo (Humboldt) squid fishery in any country. What are you doing, Friend of the Sea (whoever you are)? Is "impressive beachings" really a criterion for stock sustainability? Because, you know, a lot of whales beached in New Zealand recently.

    Personally, I think it's naive to think that any species, no matter how fast-growing or quickly-adapting, could be immune to overfishing. But I'd really like to dig around some more and discover the range of opinions among squid&fishery biologists . . .

    * This includes, of course, the Humboldt and Argentine shortfin squid, which are not always thought of as inshore squid. But neither are they truly oceanic, like other squid species that are found across entire oceans. Humboldt and Argentine squid seem to be limited to one side of an ocean each.


    "the mere idea of overexploitation is irrelevant"

    Thomas Henry Huxley was on the same train of thought in 1883:
    “I believe then that the cod fishery, the herring
    fishery, pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery
    and probably all the great sea fisheries are

    It seems that we don't learn.

    Danna Staaf
    Yeah. Sigh. The ocean is just such a black box to us compared to land. We can be pretty confident that a thriving population of dodos isn't waiting for us on any as-yet-undiscovered island, but the sea is so opaque, so unexplored, that such hopes are fed.

    Just to play devil's advocate, though, I believe that none of the "great sea fisheries" which have boomed and crashed in the past targeted any species nearly as short-lived and highly fecund as squid. I would be extremely interested in counterexamples to that statement, though, so I hope you're right about
    Everyone knows the best way to find out how wrong you are is to be so on the Internet.
    Victor Aramayo
    There are some studies on jumbo squid here in Peru

    Indeed, it is very difficult to talk about sustainability for this resource (though, in general, is difficult to find good examples of this). Recently ( it seems to be confirmed, and has become a very critical point to properly evaluate a resource management
    Danna Staaf
    Thanks for the links! I am very glad that researchers are at least gathering more information about the stock structure, that will help . . .