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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Squid Blitz

Air Date: Week of

Diners call them calamari. Biologists call them “Loligo Opalescens”(low-LEE-go opal-ESS-enz).The owners of California fishing boats simply call them “market squid” and to the market they are going in ever greater numbers. In recent years squid has led California's fisheries in both tonnage and cash value, surpassing better-known catches like salmon and abalone. Concern is mounting that the squid haul is rapidly depleting the stocks and that regulators should step in and impose some limits. Anthony Fest reports from Monterey, California.


CURWOOD: Diners call them calamari. Biologists call them “Loligo Opalescens”. The owners of California fishing boats simply call them market squid. And to the market they are going in ever greater numbers.
In recent years, squid has led California's fisheries in both tonnage and cash value, surpassing better-known catches including salmon and abalone.
The 1996 squid catch was valued at over $31 million. But some are concerned that the squid haul is rapidly depleting the stocks and say that regulators should step in and impose some limits. Anthony Fest reports from Monterey, California.

(A boat motor runs)

FEST: On a foggy California evening, Mike McHenry steers his boat across Monterey Bay for a night of squid fishing. The 60-foot “Merva-W” can carry up to 50 tons of squid. At the stern of the vessel, fishing nets are wrapped around a huge drum like thread on a spool. Up on the bridge Mr. McHenry keeps an eye on the instruments that help him locate a catch.
Schools of fish appear as red or yellow patches on the bright blue sonar screen. Mr. McHenry can identify species of fish by their patterns on the screen.

(Sound grows louder)

McHENRY: Okay, that's a school of fish right now, I'll turn the boat.
That probably will be, you know, 10 or 15 tons of anchovy right there.

FEST: You know that's what they are?

McHENRY: I think they're anchovy. It looks like anchovy and mixed sardines.

FEST: With this pinpoint technology, Mr. McHenry says, fishermen can locate almost anything in the water, and this is enabling them to catch too many squid. Unlike most other commercial fisheries, squid fishing is largely unregulated. There no official seasons, no limits on the size of catches, and no rules about who may fish. Mr. McHenry says the State Department of Fish and Game needs to change course and impose some limitations to protect the squid population.

McHENRY: The Fish and Game feels that there is no problem with the resources, it's unlimited. And when you ask them, they admit that they have made no studies on it in 25 years. What's happened is so many boats have gotten into the fishery now that it's -- it's splitting the pie up smaller and smaller and smaller; the resources just have been about been exploited.
They're pretty vulnerable. That's why we need to have some kind of regulation on them.

FEST: That could be on the horizon. Last summer the California legislature ordered the Department to conduct a biological study of squid and develop a fishery management plan. Bob Leos, a biologist with the Fish and Game Department, says the knowledge gained from the study could help ward off future problems. But he says there's no evidence of a crisis yet.

LEOS: We feel that with the current level of fishing, with the amount that's being brought in, that it's not going to hurt the fishery. And of course, a number of industry people have not agreed with us on that whole issue. However, of course, looking at it, any time a fishery is doing well and more and more boats come in and that pressure increases, ultimately yes, we're going to reach a point where it probably will have a profound effect, a profound negative effect. We don't feel that we've reached that point right now.

FEST: Mr. Leos says there's evidence that squid spawning areas are more extensive than was previously believed. He says it's likely that many of the animals reproduce in rocky areas or deep water, where fishermen can't catch them. But the study could take up to 3 years to finish, and environmental organizations say it would be a serious mistake to wait that long before taking action. Wendy Pulling, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says California fishery managers could learn a lot from their counterparts in South Africa and the Falkland Islands, two of the world's other major squid fisheries.

PULLING: They're not waiting to find every single answer to every single scientific question. They are actively managing the squid fishery now.
Some of the things that they're doing, both in South Africa and the Falkland Islands, include limiting fleet size. Taking steps to limit the catch size. They have certain areas that are off-limits to squid fishing at all, that are really set aside for squid to reproduce in.

FEST: Ms. Pulling says the fate of the California squid population is important not only to fishermen and seafood lovers.

PULLING: It's an important part of the marine food web. Salmon, for example, a number of marine mammals including sea lions, birds like the brown pelican, all these creatures eat squid. And for some of these creatures, squid is actually quite a significant part of their diet. We need to ensure that there are enough squid in the marine ecosystem so that other animals that prey on it have enough to eat.

(Boat motor)

McHENRY: Headin' home. No squid.

FEST: Mike McHenry and his crew have spent the night combing the ocean for squid. But when morning comes they're returning to port with nothing to show for their efforts.

McHENRY: We probably covered 40, 55 miles of coastline now without seeing one squid so far.

FEST: It could have been bad luck or El Niño, whose warm waters cause squid to go elsewhere to spawn. But Mr. McHenry says the squid population simply isn't very large. And the trend of rising catches gives him a sense of deja vu.

McHENRY: I've been involved in a lot of fisheries in California and watched nearly every one of them decline. And I just see the same thing happening here. All over the world, every fishery has been exploited to the extent now that we're doing the squid have gone into rapid decline.
We've got enough knowledge to draw on that we shouldn't make the same mistake again.

FEST: For Living on Earth, this is Anthony Fest aboard the Merva-W on Monterey Bay, California.



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