Gratuitous Tentacle Photo Included

Everything's in Season for Squid Along the Pacific Coast
Tom Stinstra
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Out of Half Moon Bay, 100 miles out to sea, the ocean surface erupted for a half mile in a froth of white water and tentacles.

"The squid were eating a school of fish," said commercial fisherman Bob Longstreth. "I've seen them out there. Serious predators."

In another episode, a gang of Humboldt squid had circled the boat New Salmon Queen from Emeryville. The squid were in full attack, with the anglers aboard hooking up on every drop. Capt. Craig Shimukuzu got out his video camera to film the action and as he pressed the record button, the ocean "blew up" - a pod of 10 killer whales came to the surface in a feeding frenzy of their own, slashing the squid to bits with their teeth.

On Thursday morning out of Bodega Bay, 20 fishermen aboard the New Sea Angler caught an estimated 15,000 pounds of Humboldt squid in 90 minutes; 400 squid that averaged 30 pounds and topped out at 70, with 90 percent of them hooked near the surface. Capt. Rick Powers said he found the squid on the northwest edge of Cordell Bank.

The arrival of the giant schools of Humboldt squid means two things, good and bad:

-- Good: They are providing the most exciting new fishing (and good eating) on the Pacific Coast.

-- Bad: These squid are predators that could alter the basic food chain in the ocean.

Humboldt squid were first seen off California in 1930, then not again until the El NiƱo year of 1997. They disappeared again for five years, but since 2002, they have been here to stay, according to the Monterey Bay Research Institute, taking over new territory. They are best known off the coast of South America, and in recent years, Baja California, but have expanded their range north along the Pacific Coast.

They are one of the fastest growing creatures in the world, transforming from a single cell to as much as 100 pounds during an average life span of about one year. They average 15 to 60 pounds and measure up to 6 feet long.

"They're an eating machine," Powers said. "They eat their body weight daily."

Humboldt squid are built for the job. They have 10 tentacles that are filled with teeth-lined sucker cups, including two extended tentacles that pull victims into razor-sharp beaks. "We've seen them eat each other," said Craig Stone at Emeryville Sportfishing.

Field scout Pence MacKimmie, a commercial fisherman out Half Moon Bay, said he and others have seen squid marks on deep-water black rockfish. Stanley Carpenter, a sport angler, said he saw squid marks on salmon out of Fort Bragg. Longstreth has seen them mow down huge schools of sardines and anchovies. Off of Chile, Humboldt squid are blamed for the collapse of hake.

"We don't know the impact," Power said. "That's the scary thing."

It's possible that squid have ravaged schools of salmon and rockfish, contributing to their low numbers, but this has not been verified. Capt. Tom Mattusch of the Huli Cat in Half Moon Bay has donated the stomach of every Humboldt squid caught on his boat the past few years for a federal study that is analyzing the contents.

The chain of amazing episodes reported by those on the sea tells you this: They eat everything in their paths.

One night, for instance, when the lights were left on aboard the commercial boat Promise, the glow on the night sea attracted needlefish, anchovies and sardines around the boat. That's when the Humboldt squid showed up and attacked, Longstreth said. By morning, 800 pounds of squid were stuck to the side of the boat and the skipper had to gaff them one-by-one to get them off.

On the Huli Cat, in the middle of a similar frenzy, Mattusch found what he thought was a two-headed squid. On close inspection, however, he saw "one had actually eaten the body of another, and only the head was sticking out."

Originally local news at SFGate.com

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