Long-liners setting out for months in pursuit of elusive tuna, salmon fishermen wrestling aboard 60-pound monsters, Dungeness crabbers braving angry seas to retrieve their precious catch -- commercial fishermen are the cowboys of the modern age, heroes braving the elements to best their wily prey.
Funny, you never hear that about squid fishermen -- and for good reason, actually. But they are the backbone of the California fishing industry.
Though their work may be unsung, their catch for the last decade has been the biggest -- both in volume and value -- of any in the state, worth more than $230 million. That’s more than $1 million a year better than the next most lucrative fishery, Dungeness crab. And the majority of that squid has come from Southern California.
What’s more, in these days of troubled oceans, the squid catch is one of the most environmentally sound -- fast-growing and almost infinitely renewable. And to keep it that way, it’s one of the few instances where fishermen have voluntarily chosen to be regulated.
The only thing squid fishing lacks is drama. Catching squid is about as exciting as raking leaves -- albeit raking leaves in a 20- mph breeze on a lawn that stretches from Monterey to the Mexican border. And you never know for sure just where that pile of leaves is going to show up.
On this mid-January night, the squid are right off Point Fermin, so close we can see the lights of homes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from the fishing boats.
There are all kinds of squid in the world, and they range in size from extremely small (“baby squid,” Sepiola rondeletii, the rage in European restaurants, are 1 to 2 inches long) to extremely large (giant squid, Architeuthis dux, measuring up to 60 feet).
Our local variety, California market squid, or, more formally, Loligo opalescens, are on the small end of the scale, rarely exceeding 9 inches in length. This is not to be confused with the 6-foot-long Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, which have strayed into Southern California waters lately, giving sportfishermen a thrill.
We chug out from the Los Angeles Harbor to the fishing grounds aboard the Donz Rig, a 42-foot boat that is owned by Don Brockman, 23, and his father, Donald Sr. As soon as we clear the breakwater, we can see the squid fleet in place -- a line of boats lighting up the early evening like a string of pearls.
At least that’s the way it looks from a distance. As we pull closer, the industrial nature of the operation becomes clear. What once were pretty lights on the near horizon now look like a convoy of a couple of dozen freight-hauling big rigs.
Shift to southern waters
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.
Squid fishing tends to be a family business. A recent study found that all 12 of the San Pedro skippers surveyed were second-generation fishermen, as were seven of eight from Monterey and more than half of Ventura’s.
That holds true in this case. Haworth’s father fished out of San Diego, and Brockman’s still runs a popular sportfishing boat out of Huntington Beach, in addition to owning shares in Donz Rig and another light boat, the Squid-a-Lot.
In view of that, it is perhaps not surprising that when the industry decided to regulate itself in the face of a rapidly increasing fishery, it did so mainly by closing to outside skippers. If you want to be a squid fisherman today, you have to buy a license from one who is ready to give it up.
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.
The squid are shaped like fat fountain pens and they jet back and forth. They’re spawning, and every once in a while, you’ll see two -- or three or four or even more -- with their tentacles tangled in a mating ball.
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.
Most of the squid caught off California go to Europe or Asia, where they frequently are processed and returned to the United States in more palatable forms -- cleaned, cut up and even breaded for deep-frying.
It’s a booming business. The average annual squid catch increased by more than 500% from the mid-1980s to the late ‘90s. Prices vary tremendously, ranging from lows of $100 a ton to highs of almost $600 a ton.
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.
Still, there’s more squid where those came from. Quite literally. The squid are so docile that they’ve barely moved, oblivious to the drama around them. Haworth and Brockman give them half an hour or so to recongregate, and then they work the net again.
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 Nino 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 Nino, 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.
In all, Haworth and Brockman will make three sets at this one spot in less than three hours, collecting a total of about 15 tons of squid before they decide it’s time to try another area, only a couple of hundred yards away.
Squid fishing is not always this easy. Although squid are hard to spook once found, it’s the finding that’s the trick. In the next couple of nights, the squid will vanish from here, only to show up off the Channel Islands again. Then they will disappear from there and the Barbara H. will spend one entire night searching fruitlessly all the way south to Oceanside.
The only way to know where they are is to stumble across them yourself or find out when someone else has, by monitoring the radio traffic.
Ready to deliver the catch
The fishing night is over once the 100-ton hold is filled or sunlight comes. Because squid are highly perishable, the catch needs to be processed every day. Generally, the light boat stays on the water for days in a row, protecting the team’s position on top of the squid, while the fishing boat returns to harbor to unload at the processors.
Haworth uses San Pedro’s Southern California Seafood, but there are roughly a dozen squid processors in Southern California. One of the oldest is State Fish Co. also based in San Pedro, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in the business. Sam DeLuca started exporting squid to Europe in the 1970s. Now his daughter Vanessa DeLuca is president of the company.
At State’s two plants in Wilmington, 1,200-pound vats of squid come in from the dock packed in an ice-water slurry. They are plump and ivory-colored, looking like they just came out of the ocean (which is where they were the night before).
After being hand-packed into boxes and blast-frozen rock-solid at minus 18 degrees, the squid are shipped all over the world. China, Spain, Italy and Japan are the biggest markets, but just loaded is a truck full of boxes bound for Croatia. These will go out on the next flight and arrive halfway around the world the next morning -- not two days after the squid were swimming in the Pacific off San Pedro.
Granted, it’s not the kind of adventure they write ballads about. But in its own quiet way, squid fishing can still amaze you.