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A Run for Their Money : Fishermen, Struggling Harbors Cash In on Bumper Crop of Squid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an anguished metallic cry, a winch slowly pulls a shimmering black net teeming with squid alongside the Heavy Duty.

Giant light bulbs visible for miles illuminate the evening’s catch: 25 tons of silvery squid that in a matter of hours will be chopped into calamari bound for overseas markets.

“The boat’s leaning now!” yells a crew member, as the metal winch strains to hoist the heavy load alongside the 58-foot vessel.

Inside the net, thousands of bug-eyed mollusks squirt ink in a panic and ram their parrot-like beaks against the nylon web. On deck, the crew nods approvingly at the $5,500 haul.

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This winter has delivered a bumper crop of squid to the Ventura County coastline as millions of the delicate creatures spawn along the Santa Barbara Channel’s sandy floor.

Dozens of fishing boats from Alaska to Hawaii have congregated in Ventura and Channel Islands harbors to harvest what many have described as one of the best squid runs in recent years.

And the influx of fishing crews has brought a Cannery Row spirit back to local docks, not to mention thousands of dollars in boat slip rentals to struggling harbors.

“We were down,” Ventura Harbor dock master Neil Demers-Grey said. “That change came because of the squid boats.”

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The number of squid boats working out of tiny Ventura Harbor has quadrupled since last year. The increase will pump an estimated $60,000 in slip fees into the local economy, not to mention the money that crews will spend on groceries and other living expenses.

“The guy at the fuel docks actually hugs us,” said Gary Cassidy, 47, a Washington state fisherman working aboard the Heavy Duty. “We really have breathed a little air into what these fishing ports used to be.”

Fishing boats netted more than 60,000 tons of squid off the coast of California last year, the bulk of which came from Southern California waters, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

“Last year was a record year statewide,” said Jerry Spratt, a Department of Fish and Game marine biologist in Monterey.

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This year promises to be even better, anglers say.

“It’s looking pretty good,” said Bo Sands, a 46-year-old fisherman from Bellingham, Wash., and the Heavy Duty’s skipper. “I am ahead by probably 400 ton by this time last year.”

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Biologists are at a loss to explain the phenomenal season. The squid population is widespread, stretching from Mexico to Canada, and fluctuates annually.

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Anglers don’t really care why the squid are here, they say, so long as the profitable schools continue to blip across their sonar screens.

“Sometimes, you don’t find fish for a week,” said Cassidy, who has trawled the Pacific for most of his life. “Luckily--knock on wood--we have had favorable tides and we have found them.”

For nearly three months, the Heavy Duty’s crew has combed the channel for dense pockets of squid and pulled up an average of 30 to 50 tons a night. In mid-December, the crew netted a record 67 tons in one night’s catch.

A load that size capsized a squid boat near the Channel Islands in October. The crew escaped unharmed, but the vessel and its pricey payload sank.

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“Fishing is always a gamble,” Cassidy said. “There’s lots of things that can happen.”

Sands rolled the dice two years ago when he sank $50,000 into converting his salmon boat into a squid boat, stringing it with giant light bulbs and finely meshed nets.

So far, his luck has held. The bountiful squid run has generated $35,200 more than last year, and he is only halfway through the season. Most of that money will go toward boat payments, insurance, fuel and the salaries of Sands’ five-man crew, which includes his 19-year-old son, Bret, and Cassidy’s 23-year-old son, Andy.

“I always wanted to come down here and do this,” Sands said during a recent fishing trip. “It’s hard to get a market down here.”

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Because of limited capacity, Sands had to wait until a local squid distributor could accommodate his boat and its nightly haul. Now, the Heavy Duty is one of four boats catching squid for Sun Coast Calamari in Oxnard.

Each night--weather permitting--Sands takes a squid order from Sun Coast and heads to sea to fill it.

Using computerized sonar equipment, the crew trawls the ocean floor looking for schools of squid that appear as dense blobs on their screens.

“As the sun goes down,” Cassidy explains, pointing to a blurred computer image, “the fish start playing and start moving off the bottom. And that’s when, hopefully, we can do some business.”

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At nightfall, dozens of anxious boats jostle for the best spots to cast their nets. They mark their turf by dropping anchor and defend it by barking verbal warnings over the radio to other boats that drift inside their fishing zones.

Squid-fishing etiquette says a boat should not encroach within an eighth of a mile of another boat. “Once you have your anchor down,” Sands explains. “That’s the law.”

Once positioned, anglers drop their nets, which surround and draw up squid the way a drawstring tightens a purse. Fishing boats flood the dark water with more than 15,000 watts of light to lure photosensitive squid to the surface, where they are quickly ensnared.

Because the squid are so heavy, an enormous vacuum must be lowered into the net to suck the 8-inch-long mollusks into the boat. With the flip of a switch, squid are swallowed up and spit onto a conveyor belt that deposits them into the boat’s hold.

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At the port, another vacuum will suck the squid into waiting trucks or iced crates in which they will be shipped to processing plants. There, frozen squid are packaged, renamed calamari and exported.

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Demand for the sweet-tasting seafood in overseas markets--particularly China--has been a driving force behind this year’s squid catch, according to companies that market the product.

“If China wasn’t buying, there wouldn’t be anything near the amount of squid that has been landing this year,” said Mike Carpenter, general manager of Sea Products, an Oxnard-based company that distributes squid worldwide. “I would say markets are expanded to some extent.”

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And that has some environmentalists concerned.

“What we have seen is a shift along our coast of serial depletion,” said Gary Davis, a research marine biologist for the National Biological Service.

“It’s kind of a minefield we wander through and we are doing it blindfolded because we don’t have much information about what sustains the squid,” he said.

Department of Fish and Game biologists acknowledge that they do not know what California’s squid population is. One estimate has put it at about 300,000 tons, but Spratt from the department says that is only a rough guess.

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“We have felt there is a need to study squid,” Spratt said. “The fishery has existed for many years with very little management restriction.”

Because there does not appear to be an imminent risk to the coastline’s squid population, however, Spratt says his agency sees no reason to place restrictions on squid fishing.

“Obviously at some point we would be concerned,” he said. “At the present, we feel that, due to what we know of the squid population . . . ,[it] is still underutilized.”

Longtime fishermen like Cassidy and Sands say the squid population is far from depleted. The ocean is home to billions of squid, they argue, and the region’s relatively few markets limit the amount boats can catch.

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“There’s only so much space leased and available for our product,” Cassidy said. “When we reach a certain point, we cut our production back. It’s really a self-regulated business.”

“We can’t go out and plunder night after night,” Sands adds. “Commercial fishermen are the best conservationists.”

But that position frustrates Davis of the National Biological Service, who compares the squid fishery today to the ravaged abalone fishery of decades ago.

“It continues our tradition of finding a relatively unexploited resource and running it into the ground,” he said. “We have discovered a new frontier . . . the concern is, What happens when you run out of frontiers?”

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Cassidy and Sands have watched the West Coast’s fish frontier diminish over their 30 years in the industry. And they have struggled to make a profit in a limited market now barbed with strict regulations.

To keep their heads above water, the fishermen have adapted. That means fishing salmon in Alaska in the summer, and squid in Southern California in the winter.

And despite the anxieties and uncertainties of a trade, Cassidy and Sands, who have been friends for 35 years, each harbor a desire to see their sons follow in their footsteps.

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“I think they are the reason we do it and keep doing it,” Cassidy said. “It is a lifestyle that is strictly you-reap-what-you-sow.”


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