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    California Squid Are Doing Just Dandy--This Year
    By Danna Staaf | January 27th 2010 12:58 AM | 2 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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    I have been known to admit that I fell in love with cephalopods because they are the closest things to aliens coexisting with us on our home planet. (I love aliens.) Clearly I am not the only person to come to this conclusion:
    The giant Humboldt squid could be some sort of alien species from a 1980s science fiction film. Flashing white and red like a Klingon stealth cloak, they blanket an area to attack and devour any creature they can, including each other. They employ long tentacles covered with suckers and claw-like "teeth" to grasp their prey and bring it in to a large, hard black beak, which resembles that of a demon macaw.
    This isn't a science quibble, but I really don't think that "Klingon stealth cloaks" flash white and red. Aren't they, you know, INVISIBLE?

    But the demon macaw analogy is actually kind of cool.

    Anyway, as you can tell from that article, Humboldt squid season is still in full swing. How long will it last? Who knows? The volatility of the resource is captured well in this quote from an ESPN article:
    "These things are sometimes here for six months, sometimes for 6 weeks," said Mike Gauger at Seaforth Landing in San Diego. . . . "It could fall apart tomorrow; it could go on and on. It's impossible to predict, but we're catching 'em right now."
    In fact,  fellow grad Julie and I are headed to San Diego next week in the hopes of getting some good squid samples: eggs for me to grow up into baby squid, and tummies for our pal John to open up and figure out what they're eating.

    Figuring out what they're eating is super-important, because whatever it is, they've got to be eating a lot of it. Humboldt squid are voracious*, fast-growing predators, although Captain Rick Powers' assertion (quoted in the ESPN article) that "these things are by far the most aggressive thing in the ocean" might be . . . a little bit of an overstatement. Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen more aggressive things in the ocean: mako sharks, sea otters, orca whales, chaetognaths, nemerteans, crown-of-thorns.

    And as long as we're learning to take the scientific knowledge of boat captains with a grain of salt, how about this for Exhibit B:
    "The (Humboldt) biomass is in the multi, multi, multi millions, and every year they go a little farther in their feeding range," said Powers, who has previously assisted NOAA in squid-research projects. "The Humboldt squid completely destroyed the hake fishery in northern Chile, which was that country's most viable commercial fishery. They hunt like a pack of wolves: once they've found something to eat, they continue to pound away on it until it's gone." Powers draws a cautious parallel between the crash of the Sacramento salmon stocks with the arrival of Humboldts in the mid- to late 1990s.
    Um. We actually have zero evidence that Humboldts eat salmon, and nobody has a biomass estimate for Humboldt squid. Working on it, though!

    Estimating biomass is generally considered step one in fishery management. Without it, management strategies like quotas and closures are little better than guesswork, as explained in this article from Scripps:
    Greg Helms, a program manager of the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Barbara, said there is no way to know how many squids are out there, so there is no way of knowing what is a sustainable amount to take. "If you don't know what the virgin biomass is, then we can sit around and debate and argue it's sustainable or not, but we don't know," he said.
    Greg Helms--and the rest of the article--is actually talking about market squid, not Humboldt squid. But it turns out that both species are fished abundantly in California, and both are plagued with uncertainty about the total biomass of the species.

    There, however, the similarity ends. Market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens) are small, usually about six inches from stem to stern, while Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) can reach ten times that size. The market squid fishery is old, almost as old as California's statehood. The Humboldt squid fishery is young. Some folks starting fishing Humboldts in the 90's, but it's become a big fishery only within the last few years.

    Perhaps the most important difference: market squid is a commercial fishery, while Humboldt squid is a recreational fishery. That means Humboldts are caught for fun by people who bring them home to eat, or cut them up to use as bait. Market squid, by contrast, are caught, processed, and sold for cold hard cash. In sheer dollars, it's one of the biggest fisheries in California.

    The impact of the Humboldt squid invasion on the market squid fishery is uncertain, but fears that Humboldts could devour enough market squid to make a cut in the fishery are not ill-founded. Market squid have definitely shown up in Humboldt squid tummies (unlike salmon!). Given this, one might expect that a good year for Humboldts would be a bad year for market squid, and vice versa . . .

    Except that this year is a banner year for both Humboldts:
    "I've never seen fishing like this in my life," Powers said. "I've been actively fishing for them for six years, and this is easily the best it's ever been."
    and market squid:
    "It's one of the top five seasons I can remember," said Joe Fernandez. "It's well above average."
    What with the who now? I'm confused! Let's get some scientists on this, stat!

    Oh, wait.

    I am a scientist.

    Back to the day job!



    *Did I really just type that? Someone throw a jig at me! The three most over-used terms in media coverage of Humboldt squid are "voracious" "red devil" and "razor-sharp". If I were the drinking type, this might suggest itself as an obvious game . . .

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