Guest Post: Boom Times for Squid - Oceana USA
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January 12, 2011

Guest Post: Boom Times for Squid

Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. His most recent documentary is “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” and his most recent book is OCEANS, The Threats to the Sea and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide.

Typically at this time of year a certain breed of shopper purposefully wanders the fish stalls of their favorite grocer taking stock of the piles of fresh oysters carefully arranged on crushed ice or to pick up and judge the heft in their hands of tightly packed tins of caviar, which sell for anywhere from $50 to $2,000.

But maybe this is the year to lay off those two favored treats and replace them with something slightly less traditional: squid.

I know, a big bowl of calamari hardly compares to one of caviar… but, man, there’s a lot of squid out there these days. I’m sure some of those very popular sustainable fish chefs have already dreamed up some special calamari entrée to take advantage of the boom.

How much squid is out there? It’s estimated that around-the-world squid in mass outweighs the human population. And that’s with sperm whales alone munching down more than 100 million tons of squid each year. Squid are one of the most important foods in the ocean, along with other prey like sardines and pollock. Whales and seabirds depend on abundant squid to raise their young, particularly during breeding season.

Along the coast of California, the market squid season has been so abundant the state Department of Fish and Game reports its annual limit of 118,000 tons has already been taken and the squid season is now closed until March 31. Marine biologists credit a rush of colder-than-normal water for the banner year; usually February is prime time.

At the same time, certain squid are booming thanks to a slight warming of sea temperatures, in places like Alaska and Siberia. Many squid, octopuses and other sucker-bearing members of the cephalopod family don’t appear to be too troubled by the minor increase. In fact, when it’s a little warmer, some thrive. The populations are thought to be exploding because of the overfishing of other fish that used to dine on young squid.

Warmer waters can help squid “balloon” in size because their enzymes work faster when warm. A young giant squid can grow from 2 millimeters to a meter in a single year, the equivalent of a human baby growing to the size of a whale in twelve months.

There’s also been a boom in Humboldt squid along the Pacific coastline ranging from Peru to California, now expanding northward to places they’ve never been seen before. The big tentacled variety can grow more than seven feet long and weigh more than one hundred pounds. A feisty fish, once on the line, the big squids can be slightly dangerous to haul into your boat. They have a nasty, pecking beak, like to spray black ink and have the ability to expel up to two gallons of water into the faces of unsuspecting fishermen (“like a giant squirt gun”).

A downside to the boom in giant squid is that they also have giant appetites, which means they are making a big hit on salmon, for example, thus reducing the amount of the pink fleshy fish for human tables.

The giant squid are also proving to be a menace to divers, being both aggressive and carnivorous, a mean combo when the tentacles of one of the rust-colored, six-foot long creatures latches onto your air tank, or leg.

Editor’s note: It’s typical for squid and other prey species to boom and bust in response to changing environmental conditions. Oceana is working to establish regulations that adapt fishing to this rollercoaster, fishing more during the boom and cutting back during lean times to protect food for whales. As an added complexity, cephalopods are seeing their numbers expand as the fishing industry captures more and more of the big predatory fish that eat squid, such as tuna.