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Earning Their Net Worth : Squid Haul is Profitable and Free of Regulations

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fishing for squid is nowhere near as glamorous as hooking salmon or harpooning swordfish, but Anthony Russo enjoys a freedom claimed by few other commercial fishermen.

Since mid-October, Russo, his two brothers and a five-man crew have been plowing the seas off Ventura County reaping one of the ocean’s most abundant and mysterious creatures--and one of the few species that remain virtually unregulated by the state Department of Fish and Game.

For Russo, that means no restricted fishing season, no size limits, no catch quotas, no special license and no competition from other fishermen for a depleted species.

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“You don’t need a license, you just need a buyer’s order,” said Russo, 43, who has fished for squid since 1974. “This is a fishery that’s governed only by supply and demand.”

Known as calamari in culinary circles, squid has become the state’s second-largest seafood catch after mackerel. More than 65 million pounds of the so-called “poor man’s abalone” were landed by about two dozen boats last year at ports in Ventura, Los Angeles and Monterey counties.

The high-protein and low-fat content of the sleek, tentacled mollusk has helped boost demand among health-conscious consumers. It is one of the few “underutilized” species in Southern California waters, according to the Fish and Game Department.

“They’re not threatened or in any danger of being overfished,” said Greg Cailliet, a biologist at the University of California’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

But the market remains somewhat limited by many people’s aversion to eating a bug-eyed creature celebrated in sea monster tales.

California’s catch is primarily canned for export or used as fish bait, with less than 20% sold fresh or frozen for American restaurants and dinner tables, processors said.

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“Maybe it was the name, or just how it looks, but I worked here six years before I even tried it,” said Bevin White, who unloads squid at Port Hueneme, the state’s leading squid port. “Some crew member slipped it to me when I didn’t realize and it was pretty tasty.”

Despite their worldwide abundance, a good squid catch is far from guaranteed.

Squid migrate into coastal waters to spawn, showing up in far larger numbers some years than others. Fishermen landed a record 90 million pounds in California in 1989, compared to 1.2 million pounds in 1984 after El Nino, a current that warms surface waters and interferes with the marine food supply.

“There’s a lot unknown about squid,” said Gene Fleming, a state marine resources supervisor in Sacramento. “Their life span is on the order of a year and a half, which makes them a dynamic species, but when you have a short-lived critter, the populations can go up and down drastically.”

This is the third year that Russo and his crew, who fish from their home port of Monterey in spring and summer, have come down to Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard for the October-through-March season.

Each afternoon, his boat, Sea Wave, heads out into the Santa Barbara Channel equipped with the tools of the trade: a 150-by-1,100-foot purse-seine net and 2,200 watts of halogen light bulbs that attract the spawning hordes from the depths.

Russo and his brothers, Andrew and Joseph, are fourth-generation fishermen, going back to their great-grandfather in Sicily. They bought plans and, with the help of subcontractors, built the Sea Wave three years ago for about $600,000.

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The boat was the largest of a dozen operating out of Ventura County last week, capable of taking 85 tons in its refrigerated hold. But it is half the size of some of the “super-seiners” based in San Pedro.

Russo’s daily take depends less on finding fertile fishing ground than on the size of his purchase order from the Monterey Fish Co. The company trucks his squid overnight up to its cannery and freezer plant in Monterey County.

Lately, the fishermen have been getting 6 cents a pound for their squid, a fraction of its retail price. One Ventura County supermarket was selling whole frozen squid last week for $1.59 a pound. Frozen, cleaned squid--or just the tube and tentacles--sold for $3.29 per pound.

Half the squid boats in Ventura County were idle several nights last week because of a shortage of orders.

Russo and his crew headed out one day last week at 2 p.m. with an order for 40 tons, less than half his vessel’s capacity.

Two smaller lighted boats took off for fishing grounds off Santa Cruz Island in advance of the Sea Wave and two other seiners. The three fishing boats had jointly hired the scouts in exchange for 20% of the catch.

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Russo, charting his course by a computerized autopilot system, plodded along at 8 m.p.h. toward the chosen spot. The sun was setting behind the island mountain range as the Sea Wave met up with the scouting boats around 5 p.m., about 100 yards off a sheer-cliff stretch of shoreline.

After enduring tumultuous seas the night before, the crew was greeted by waters as smooth as a puddle and warm Santa Ana winds rolling out from the coast.

“You only dream about a spot like this,” said scout boat captain Keith Bisbo.

Pelicans and sea gulls by the thousands already had taken up positions in the air and on the sea, waiting eagerly for spillover from the nets.

Anticipating a good night, Russo and his crew dropped the net of 1 3/8-inch webbed nylon before the sun was down. “This is really unusual,” he said. “It’s unheard of to lay out in daylight.”

It quickly became clear that the lights, which attract squid best on moonless nights like last Tuesday, would not be needed.

As darkness descended, a whitish-blue mass appeared at a depth of about 20 feet. Nearby, another vessel, already pulling in its nets, began listing to one side under the weight of the load.

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As Russo’s crew drew in its net, blue sharks began circling the perimeter, while several sea lions turned somersaults nearby.

If any sea lions get caught in the net, Russo tosses in a firecracker to scare them away. The only other incidental catch is mackerel.

As the net pulled tighter, the squid discharged billows of ink to ward off their unseen predator.

Suddenly, small floats holding up the net’s perimeter got dragged underwater by the heavy load, liberating tons of squid that swam over the top.

But neither Russo nor any of the others seemed to care, knowing that the net had drawn in as much as 100 tons of squid, more than double the night’s order.

“Good night,” said crew member Tam Van Nguyen, as the squid poured into the hold. “Easy. We get fish in one shot, and we go home.”

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Van Nguyen, like the Russos, is descended from a long line of fishermen. Dating back at least to his great-grandfather in Vietnam, the men in his family started fishing as boys and became craftsmen at working hand-sown nets, he said.

Having met its order in one haul, the crew dined on fried calamari fillets, corn, salad and sourdough bread on the trip back to port. They each will earn an average of $1,000 a week through January, when weather turns bad and the squid are too small. Processors prefer six to nine squid per pound.

Weighed at dockside, the Sea Wave’s catch was 100,000 pounds, 20,000 pounds above the order. As he often does, Russo told the receiving agent to credit the extra $1,200 worth of squid to another boat’s owner who Russo learned by radio had come up short of his order on the first haul.

“When I get in trouble, snag or break a net, he does the same for me,” Russo said. “Better I bring in my extra for him than dump it and make him lay out again.”

Said Russo: “Tonight, there’s more than enough to go around.”

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