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Squid Squabble Surfaces in California

Scoopers seek separation from seiners


The F/V Ocean Angel II plies the waters off southern California for market squid. The past two seasons have proven quite lucrative for squid fishermen, although smaller vessel owners feel as if they’re being squeezed out. Photo courtesy of

The 2013 season for one of California’s most lucrative commercial fisheries opened April 1 amid a lingering controversy that erupted late last season.

Briana Brady with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW, officially changed from Department of Fish and Game on January 1) said the fleet is out pursuing market squid, so the nearshore waters of southern California are sure to be alive at night with the eerie green-and-white glow of the 30,000-watt lanterns used to lure the squid to the surface for capture.

Fishermen say the fishery has produced lots of black ink in their ledgers during the past three seasons, as they capitalized on favorable ocean conditions that are drawing market squid by the millions.

But brail-boat (scoop net) squid fishermen say they’re losing out to seiners under the quota system adopted by the state’s fish and game commission in 2004 and started in March 2005. They also point to an infiltration by what they claim are large (50-to-80-foot) foreign-built seiners, mostly from Canada, whose crews snatch up an unfair share of squid, as much as 80 to 150 tons per vessel.

The seiners, they add, leave little or no quota remaining for them to pursue during the last few months of the year-long season, when the brail boats typically go after them.

“I haven’t been able to fish for three straight years,” said one, noting that he generally fishes for squid from December through March. When the fishery closes earlier because the quota is reached, he’s left out, and it’s driving him “in-seine,” so to speak.

Under guidelines set by the state’s Market Squid Fishery Management Plan, the CDFW closed the fishery in November 2011 and 2012, because fishermen had met the overall quota of 118,000 short tons. Agency leaders say they put those restrictions in place “to ensure long-term conservation and sustainability of the market squid resource, reduce the potential for overfishing and provide a framework for management.”

Squid fishing expanded during the 1990s as worldwide demand skyrocketed. Surging demand in China, Japan, Mexico and Europe boosted prices and launched the fishery atop the state’s most lucrative, lately at about $70 million per year. Market squid also provide vital food for seabirds, marine mammals, and other commercial fish species. Conservation groups have noticed the abundant catches and are now asking for additional protection for squid, sardines, anchovies, herring and other small schooling prey or “forage fish” they say are the foundation of a delicate marine food web.

One thing fishermen and processors know: Squid are more than plentiful.

“The truth is there’s a lot of fish,” said Joe Cappuccio, president of Del Mar Seafoods, headquartered in Watsonville, California. Del Mar owns and operates fishing vessels and processing facilities in California and Oregon that catch, package, freeze and export 80 million pounds of squid, anchovies, mackerel, sardines and Pacific whiting (hake) per year.

“Marine reserves have taken a foothold and have been phenomenally successful, at least for squid,” Cappuccio noted. “They’re stacked top to bottom, with nowhere to hide. It’s an explosion of squid.”

Yet, despite their huge economic and ecological value, their behavior mostly remains a mystery. NOAA scientists say, “many aspects of the life history of market squid remain unknown,” which makes conservation efforts and additional research imperative. Because the market squid fishery works directly above spawning grounds, management efforts aim to allow enough of them to spawn before capture to ensure production for the next generation. During the past decade, CDFW leaders opted to get a handle on things with catch limits, weekend fishing bans and caps on the number of commercial squid fishing permits and vessels (55 seiners, 34 light boats, 18 brail boats). Closing the fishery on weekends, they note, gives the squid a break by allowing “periods of uninterrupted spawning.”

The Fish

Market squid – also known as opalescent squid for the way light reflects off their six-inch bodies, which can change color from milky white to ruddy, live less than a year, range from southeastern Alaska to Baja, California, and are generally found within 200 miles of shore.

Market squid are extremely sensitive to variable ocean conditions. Researchers say market squid “go where they go and do what they do when they want to do it,” based on available nutrients, water temperature and other factors.

CDFW officials say they live about 10 months maximum, spawning on the ocean bottom before dying. As juveniles, they feed on plankton and krill. As adults, they eat small fish, other squid and small crustaceans. Adult squid move into deeper water during the day, but return to near the surface (upper 295 feet) at night to feed. When adults reach maturity, they move into shallower waters, 240 feet to 360 feet deep with a soft or sandy ocean bottom – to spawn.

The Fishery

NOAA researchers say almost all of the world’s market squid are hauled in from California’s shallow water, where they gather in gigantic schools to spawn and die. A fraction of the catch goes directly to fish markets or is sold as bait, but most is frozen and shipped overseas to serve as calamari, which is how most folks recognize squid, sliced, breaded and deep-fried.

“Two distinct fisheries have emerged north and south of Point Conception due to the timing of peak spawning periods in each region,” noted the CDFW’s 2011 Status of the Fisheries report.

Historically, the north fishery, located mainly around Monterey Bay, operated from April through September while the south fishery was most active from October through March. But “spawning and fishing activities can occur in both areas throughout the fishing season (April 1 to March 31),” the report noted.

California market squid are extremely sensitive to warm water trends of El Nino, with overall catches decreasing before rebounding during cooler La Nina phases and their boost of upwelling. El Nino conditions squelch the south fishery leading to minimal landings, while north fishery landings often rise, then drop for several years afterward. With the nutrient-poor, warm-water conditions, landings can disappear entirely in some areas.

The past few years, however, have proven exceptional for most squid fishermen, and the southern fishery has dominated landings since 1985.

Market demand, resource availability and quality of product all affect prices paid to fishermen. Average prices have ranged from $257 per ton to $320 per ton, occasionally dropping as low as $100 per ton for some vessels bringing in full loads. Significantly higher prices are paid for market squid taken by brail gear and squid purchased in lower volumes by smaller local dealers. Since 2005, prices have remained at about $499 per ton due to high international demand and the collapse of other squid fisheries.

Not everyone has shared in the good fortune, and the limited entry and quota system is stirring up concerns for some fishermen, specifically the small brail-boat operators.

Seine or Scoop?

Fishermen use either seine or brail (scoop) nets in combination with lights to catch aggregations of adult squid in their spawning grounds.

Seine fishing is the most common practice, using two vessels and a skiff to capture market squid. Most fishing takes place at night, so a light boat with high-wattage bulbs is used to attract the squid and concentrate them near the surface. The seine vessel then deploys the skiff to encircle the squid with the gear to haul them aboard. Light boats can also use brail gear, a scoop net, to bring in more squid. Brail fishermen use scoop nets to harvest floating squid at the surface after they have spawned.

All permitted vessels have access to the fishery’s 118,000-ton quota. But brail-boat fishermen say they’re at a disadvantage, especially from foreign-built vessels from Canada that some fishermen believe are obtaining permits illegally by misrepresenting their capacity through a process known as ad-measurement to obtain their California registrations. As a result, they say daily catch rates have jumped from 1,000 tons to more than 4,000 tons, and the seiners, US and foreign, snatch up the quota before the scoop fishery even begins.

“I’m paying the same permit fee as a Seiner and being denied my rights,” said one, noting that it’s not the seiners he considers as the culprit, but a flawed CDFW permit process. A few are looking into possible legal action as a remedy.

From a sustainability standpoint, scoop fishermen say their method is better. In fact, the fishery was entirely a scoop fishery (first launched by the Chinese in their sampans in 1863) until the seiners took over.

The scoop fishery, they note, goes after squid that have already spawned and will soon die, leaving the spawning ground and future population unscathed.

“Our harvest practices are like a highly-efficient hatchery system that’s self-funded,” said one. “It’s all about sustainability. So we enhance the squid population, and we should be able to fish seven days a week year-round.”

Seine owners and operators say they are properly registered under the proper tonnage, and they comply with all state and federal regulations.

“The resource is really strong,” said Cappuccio. “Even if the fleet was a third the size it is now, it would still easily reach the quota.” While the quota could be higher and not hurt the resource, he said it “could be economically devastating, it would crush our prices. It makes no sense to flood the markets.”

As for foreign-built vessels, Cappuccio said maybe a half or so dozen from Canada sought squid in California waters, and they were here legally. Permits, he added, are based on size, and “an 80-ton permit is an 80-ton permit, whether the boat is from China, Canada or the United States.”

Seiners say the Asian market demands squid caught prior to spawn, and although a market exists for spawned squid, the product isn’t the best.

Cappuccio said the success of the past few seasons has drawn more brail boats back into the fishery, and while there’s plenty of squid for all, the quota can make small boat owners feel as if they’re being left behind. Brail boats, he added, are back primarily due to a loophole in the management plan that CDFW is trying to close.

“I feel their frustration,” he said. “They do offer a whole other niche by supplying the fresh market when we can’t. It’s a good market. But we’re all in this together.”

Some scoop fishermen disagree. They say they want more access to squid, and the best way to go about it is to split into two fisheries, seine and scoop, each with its own quota.

“We don’t want a separation, we want a divorce,” one noted. “We want our own allocation, our own access. That’s the heart of the matter. Small boats are family fishing enterprises, and we just want our little piece of the resource.”


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