Big squid on the hook to be in markets; researchers study reason for mass migration to cooler waters
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Gary Willmett, on his fishing boat White Eagle in Neah Bay with some of the Humboldt squid he's recently caught. -- Photo for Peninsula Daily News by Donna Barr

By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News

Researchers are attempting to learn why masses of subtropical Humboldt squid have moved north, where commercial fishermen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca say the voracious cephalopods are gobbling their catches.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is allowing commercial fishermen to sell the large Humboldt squid that they accidentally catch as they troll for salmon.

Since the arrival of large numbers of the jumbo squid in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean off LaPush is a recent phenomenon, the state was unsure until last week if state regulations allow fishermen to sell squid that they don't mean to hook, said Greg Bargmann, Fish and Wildlife marine ecosystem manager.


'Never been done'

"This has never been done before," he said. "We had to dig out the regulations.

"We didn't know if a provision existed."

Allowing sales help commercial fishermen such as Gary Willmett of Neah Bay, who said he has between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of squid he inadvertently caught while fishing for salmon on his boat, White Eagle.

Kent Baltz, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers from his office are arriving in Westport today to study the squid.

They will spend the next few days tagging squid with electronic monitors.

That will allow researchers to know where they are spending their time and for how long.

The usual range of Humboldt squid -- which eat lanternfish, shrimp, mollusks, salmon and other fish -- is from the southern tip of South America to Southern California.

Warmer water?

Baltz said that a "strong hypothesis" to explain the swarms of squid so far north is that the ocean water is warmer than usual.

NOAA called July the fifth-warmest month ever recorded for global ocean surface water temperatures.

Fueled by an El NiƱo weather pattern, National Weather Service meteorologist Jay Albrecht said, the waters off Western Washington are between 1 and 2 degrees above normal.

But, he added, the waters off Neah Bay have been average this summer at around 55 degrees.

The earliest it is known that Humboldt squid reached Washington state's coast was in the 1930s after a brief warming trend, Baltz said.

They were seen in the summer for five years that decade before disappearing.

The latest invasion began in 2004, with large numbers of squid reported seasonally in Alaska and British Columbia as well as Washington state.

They've come back annually since, and this year, fishermen are reporting the largest numbers yet.


Threat to fish

Willmett said the squid are more than just a curiosity -- they are a threat to fish stocks and his livelihood.

Willmett, 55, said the squid -- which can grow about 6 ½-feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds -- have been eating the salmon right off his hooks while he trolls the Strait in his 39-foot boat.

"They take the fish right off in front of you," he said.

"All you get is the jaw, if you are lucky."

In four days of fishing earlier this month, Willmett said he caught two king salmon, 42 silver salmon -- and 30 squid.

Normally, he would have caught up to 100 salmon, he said.

While Willmett said the squid exist in such large numbers that he hasn't been able to avoid them this summer, there are no official estimates of the local squid population.

Although the state will allow him to sell the squid he accidentally caught, Willmett said what he really wants is to be able to troll for the squid in order to bring down their numbers.

"I want an opportunity to put a dent in them, if it can be done," he told Bargmann on his cell phone Friday.

"Unfortunately, the thing is, they are getting in my back pocket."

But Bargmann said a decision on whether that will be allowed won't be made until next year.

"We are concerned about what the bycatch of salmon might be," he said.

While Bargmann said the squid are eating a lot of salmon, he expects them to leave soon, likely this month, once the water temperature begins to drop.

"I don't think it's a major threat," he said. "I don't think it will last very long."

But Bargmann admits that if the squid keep returning during the summer, the state would be concerned about their effect on the fishing industry.

And the question of whether they will return isn't an easy one for scientists to answer.

Baltz called that a "big unknown."

While it is believed that warming ocean waters is prompting the creatures to call the Pacific Northwest coast a seasonal home for now, he said no one can say how long they will keep coming back.

Beaks, teeth

When researchers work with the squid, they may find that handling the creatures is not an easy task, as Willmett will attest to.

Not only are their beaks dangerous, but their suction points also have sharp teeth on them.

"They will draw blood," Willmett said.

"They will give you a hickey like you never had before."

Baltz said the squid were rare to be seen even off most of the southern California coast until roughly 10 years ago, and have been wreaking havoc on ecosystems all along the West Coast.

"They are pretty opportunistic hunters," he said, adding that they will eat 15 percent of their body weight daily.

"For us, that is 30 to 40 meals a day."

Russ Vetter, NOAA fisheries resource director at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., agreed.

"They're voracious little critters," he said.

"If habitat is available, they move on up to feed until the water is cold enough to turn home."

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Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at tom.callis@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 12. 2009 11:52PM
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