Humboldt squid beach themselves on Northwest beaches (UPDATE)
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Donna Barr/For Peninsula Daily News
Humboldt squid wash up on the beach to be breakfast for seagulls at Van Riper's Resort in Sekiu on Saturday.

By Leah Leach
Peninsula Daily News

SEKIU — The giant Humboldt squid that invaded North Olympic Peninsula waters earlier this month apparently have taken to beaching themselves.

Observers in Clallam Bay and Sekiu say that hundreds of the large squid — which can grow to six-feet-long and weigh up to 70 pounds — have littered the beaches each morning since Wednesday.

“There had to be 100 of them laying all over the beach,” said Chris Mohr, owner of Van Riper’s Resort in Sekiu on Friday.

“It was like a graveyard out there.”

The large squid are alive when they wash up on the beaches, said Greg Bargmann, Fish and Wildlife marine ecosystem manager, on Friday.

“They seem to move into shallow water, and are very still. They look dead, but they move if touched,” he said. “They are still alive, but they are not doing very well.”

Bargmann had collected about 30 squid that beached themselves in Clallam Bay and Sekiu on Wednesday. He had reliable reports from Westport about lethargic squid swimming on the surface in daylight hours, “which is unusual,” as well as unconfirmed reports of squid littering beaches in LaPush and Neah Bay.

Experts don’t know why the squid, which generally keep to deep water, are showing up en masse on the shores, any more than they know why thousands of the voracious, subtropical cephalopods suddenly arrived in northern waters earlier this month.

The occurrence of Humboldt squid, which generally have a range from the southern tip of South America to Southern California, in the Strait is so unusual that researchers can’t explain either their appearance or their behavior.

Interesting theories
But they have interesting theories.

“The cause [of the beaching] is unclear,” Bargmann said. “It may be related to water temperature or salinity — they aren’t used to diluted salt water — or it may be that the water temperature is cooling down.”

Kent Baltz, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer in Santa Cruz, Calif., suspects that the lower salinity of the water in the Strait could be hard on the squid.

“Squid are highly sensitive to water conditions, very sensitive to pH” — a measure of the acidity or basicity of a solution — he said, pointing out that water in the Strait is generally more diluted by freshwater and has more sediment than that in open ocean.

“I suspect that the water inside the Strait is having an effect on them,” Baltz said. “It’s probably causing them to die off quicker once they get inside the Strait. It could be one of the causes.”

Despite their size, the natural life span of a Humboldt squid is short, researchers say.

“They’re kind of like an insect. They only live a year” to a year and a half, Baltz said.

“Once they reach their full maturity, they die pretty quickly.”

Usually, squid die in the winter. California researchers expect die-offs of squid in February or March. But, the conditions in the Strait could be stressing them, he said.

“We don’t know enough about them. We’re not used to their being inside the Strait, so it’s hard to know what part of their natural history they’re going through.

“But I don’t think they are dying of old age. I think they have gotten themselves into water they’re not used to.”

Chasing food
Russ Vetter, director of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, thinks the squid may be featuring into shallow water simply because they’re chasing food.

“It’s like whales, nobody knows the total answer,” he said, adding that squid beach themselves at times in California, too.

“It looks like they’re chasing fish in the surf zone and get caught,” Vetter said.

Vetter feels that food is the reason the squid traveled north.

“It is an invasion,” he said, “all the way up and down the West Coast,” one that has been seen in California since 2003, and which began being noticed in Washington state about one year later.

“They’ll eat anything they can get their tentacles on,” including salmon, he said — their huge appetite is why they grow so big so quickly — but they particularly like sardines, hake, anchovies “any sort of little fish.”

“Toward the end of summer and early fall, there’s a lot of food up there. So, one idea is that they’re following all this food,” Vetter said.

“If the buffalo are going farther north, than the wolves are probably going farther north is the idea,” he explained.

Another idea researchers are considering is that climate change, with warmer water temperatures, allows creatures that normally live in subtropical water to move north.

Live in cold water
But Vetter said he isn’t convinced that squid are following warmer water.

“They move up and down in the water quite a bit, like hundreds of feet, and they’re eating all the way. While we think of them as semi-tropical, they get exposed to really cold temperatures as they go into deeper waters” where the temperature is 30 to 40 degrees, he said.

Another theory is that there are no longer enough squid predators, such as the popular commercial fish like tuna and swordfish, or sperm whales, Vetter said.

If a lack of predators has been part of the reason that jumbo squid have invaded Washington state waters, then the solution may already have come calling.

Mohr in Sekiu says residents are seeing more orcas than usual in the Strait.

“In the last week, we’ve seen pods of killer whales on a regular basis,” he said. “They are in the area where they are catching squid.”

Would orcas hunt squid? Vetter was asked.

“Killer whales, I imagine, would love them,” he said.

SIDEBAR: It's open season on Humboldt squid.

Commercial fishermen can hunt squid year-round, unlike salmon that can be legally caught only during specified fisheries, said Greg Bargmann, Fish and Wildlife marine ecosystem manager.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed earlier this month that fishermen can sell the large Humboldt squid that they accidentally catch as they troll for salmon.

But if the fishery is closed, they can buy squid commercial licenses, which are good seven days a week, Bargmann said Friday.

Those hunting squid aren’t use to salmon trolls, or hooks, since they might inadvertently catch salmon out of season, Bargmann emphasized.

Instead they can use the 8-to-12-inch squid jigs.

The licenses cost $185 for residents and $295 for non-residents, he said.
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Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or leah.leach@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 20. 2009 1:18PM
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