Squid fishermen watch and wait -- then haul in the biggest catch from California waters. By Russ Parsons, Times Staff Writer
January 31, 2007
Here is a link to a very informative article about the commercial squid fishery in California.
Here are a few key extracts:
CALIFORNIA squid tend to gather in clusters just offshore. Their fisheries are concentrated in Southern and Central California: in the summer out of Monterey and in the winter from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
Historically, Monterey Bay was the center. Fishermen from China established summer camps there to catch and dry squid to take home as far back as the 1860s. Then Italian immigrants took over in the early 20th century by introducing a more efficient means of fishing.
But beginning about 1985, there was a dramatic swing south. Now, depending on the year, as much as 90% of the squid caught off the California coast comes from between Ventura and Los Angeles, particularly around the Channel Islands.
Brockman pulls the Donz Rig into position next to the Barbara H., the 80-foot fishing boat owned by David Haworth, 42. Squid fishermen work in pairs: One vessel is the light boat, and it attracts the fish. The other has the nets, and it catches them. Partnerships are for the season, but they can be renewed for years. Brockman and Haworth are in their second year.
Once Brockman finds his place next to the Barbara H., he switches on his lights. They're mounted on a platform above the cabin, six 2,000-watt bulbs on either side. Gradually they grow brighter until it seems nearly daylight. On deck, the quality of the light is like being on the field in an NFL stadium during a night game. This gives everything a peculiarly staged quality, like we're all actors in a play — even the swarms of gulls that dart in and out of the light, looking for squid treats.
Squid love these lights the way moths love flames. Within a couple of minutes, they begin to appear just under the surface. At first, they look like reflected light dappling the waves. Then as they come closer, you can begin to make them out as squid.
A big part of squid fishing is waiting. Brockman jockeys the boat just enough to maintain its position relative to the Barbara H. The diesel engines thrum underneath and their exhaust mingles with the salt air to form a potent perfume in the chilly night air.
He checks his two sonar displays. They show a mass of red, green and yellow blurs underneath us. To the uninitiated, they look like some electronic tie-dye pattern. But he points out how some of the blips have sharp edges.
"That's junk," he says, referring to stray mackerel and sardines that are intermingled with the squid. The outlines of the squid on the sonar are softer.
Eventually, the mackerel and sardines will move on, but the squid, hypnotized by the bright lights, stay behind. So numbed are they to anything going on around them that when Brockman throws seal bombs — underwater firecrackers — over the side to chase away the unwanted fish, the squid don't even react to the explosions just below them.
We sit, parked, for a couple of hours, waiting for more squid to gather. Brockman busies himself checking the sonar and GPS and carrying on what sometimes seem like four conversations at once on a pair of cellphones and several assorted radios that hang from the ceiling.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the squid get thicker. Still, it becomes clear that tonight is not going to be as hot as the last several have been. "Last night it was like this amazing cloud of light all around the boat," says Brockman's first mate, Balarama Ackley.
Retrieving the net
EVENTUALLY, Brockman and Haworth decide the time is right to "make a set." Haworth releases the skiff from the back of his boat. It is big and blunt and looks barely seaworthy. It serves to anchor one end of Haworth's 1,200-foot net while he pushes the Barbara H. in a circle around the Donz Rig, unspooling the rest of the net behind him.
Once the circle is complete, the brightly illuminated light boat sits in the center of a ring of the net's yellow floats, looking like a toy in a tub. Then the real work begins. Slowly, by a combination of winches and sheer muscle power, the Barbara H.'s six-man crew starts to retrieve the net, cinching the bottom and shrinking the circumference.
As the net grows tighter, the school of squid becomes denser. Brockman and Ackley take advantage of this by scooping the squid up with long-handled nets and dumping them into the salt-water holding tank in the middle of the deck.
These live squid, which will sell for $60 a scoop, as opposed to the $500 a ton for the main catch, will go to bait shops and a few small markets. Truly fresh California squid that have not been frozen are extremely rare at markets and restaurants because they are so perishable. Even a day out of water can start spoilage.
The main haul comes after the net has been pulled close alongside the Barbara H., where it hangs in the water like a fully laden sack purse. The crew swings a big metal bell housing attached to a 10-inch-diameter hose into the middle of the sack and begins to vacuum the squid aboard.
It takes only a few minutes to suck up the 6 or 7 tons caught on this set. That seems like a lot of squid, but Haworth is a little disappointed. On one set the night before, he netted 15 tons.
This is the third night the squid have been here. Before that, they'd been congregating off the north end of Santa Cruz Island, near Oxnard. But as the water temperature there dropped below 56 degrees, the squid moved south.
Indeed, squid are extraordinarily sensitive to water temperature — hot or cold. They like temperatures in the high 50s to mid-60s. While the annual squid harvest off California has averaged just more than 70,000 tons for the last decade, in the El Niño years when the water temperatures were warmer, it plummeted. In 1998, the bottom dropped out with only 3,000 tons.
This year seems to be a mild El Niño, and the catch has been slim but not disastrous. Last year's catch was about 78,000 tons; this year's will probably wind up at about 50,000 tons.