While last year's market squid bounty continues into the 2011 fishing season, the market squid's larger cousin is playing hard to get. The Humboldt or jumbo squid--you remember, our hungry friends that grow up to five feet long and eat everything they can wrap their arms around--makes a habit out of making headlines, whether it's invading or invisible. This year, it's the latter.

"Catches of jumbo squid in 2009-2010 seemed limitless," reports Frank Hartzell of the Mendocino Beacon. But they've been conspicuously absent in 2011.

As any good reporter would*, Hartzell interviewed Dr. Humboldt Squid, a.k.a. Bill Gilly, my grad school advisor. Gilly thinks the current squid situation can be explained by a recent El Niño event:
When El Nino comes, new-born Humboldt squid seem to make one of two choices, and possibly both. First, to migrate to a place not so affected by El Nino — somewhere away from the wind-driven upwelling centers that normally support large populations of squid. Second, to forget about growing to be a giant with 30 million eggs, which can only happen in a highly productive area with lots of food, and reproduce as early as possible with only a few million eggs — cut your losses and pass things on the next generation.
If last year's newborn Humboldts did indeed make those choices, it could explain why nobody's catching them this year. Migration would take them further out to sea, out of the reach of most sport fishing boats. And growing to a smaller size would make them much less noticeable, even if they were closer to the coast. In other words, they might not have disappeared at all--merely gone incognito.

It's always fun to see your advisor quoted in the news, but there's an extra thrill if he mentions research you did yourself:
"One other recent discovery that we've made is that a potential spawning ground opens up a few hundred miles offshore Central California through Washington from July through October each year. That could be where the squid went during the last year. Know anybody with a good boat who wants to go to 130 W, 44N during August? That's exactly where I'd like to look," said Gilly.
Uncovering that potential spawning ground was a chapter of my PhD thesis, one that Gilly and I (and fellow conspirator Lou Zeidberg) are currently working into a paper. How did we figure out that Humboldts might be spawning offshore in August? I'll 'splain all the details when the paper comes out, but here's a hint: I had to make a lot of squid babies.

* Hartzell's journalism is generally fine, with one glaring exception: he closes with the totally unfounded assertion that
The deaths of thousands of Humboldt squid, which died off the coast of Oregon in 2004 and 2008, weren't caused by a shift in deep-sea currents as previously thought, underwater noise pollution literally blew holes in their heads, a Spanish scientist has found.
Ugh, what nonsense. I wish he'd asked Gilly about that (I wonder if he did?). As I pointed out last month, there is absolutely zero evidence linking Humboldt squid strandings to noise. The Spanish research he's referencing did show a correlation in other cephalopod species between noise and physiological damage, but as the ScienceNOW coverage points out, there's cause to be skeptical of even those results:
For one, the paper presents little quantitative data to support its assertions. For another, the control animals weren't held in an aquarium before they were killed, like the experimental animals were.
Those complaints may not sound major, but please believe me, for scientists they set off loud warning gongs. NOT QUANTIFIED, wails one gong; BAD CONTROLS, cries the other. Quantification and controls are pillars of good science. Lacking them doesn't necessarily mean the science is bunk, but it's a roof I wouldn't stand under.