Almost every night this winter, bright lights have appeared off the coast of Malibu.
It’s an eerie sight on a foggy evening, suggesting something unearthly or supernatural, but the only thing these ghostly lights portend is the presence of Doryteuthis opalescens, the common market squid.
It’s a good omen for California’s seafood industry. Market squid is one of California’s largest commercial fisheries, and tons of frozen California calamari are shipped all over the world each year. However, the species had almost entirely disappeared from Southern California waters last year. The absence of squid is being blamed on El Niño.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Laura Ryley studies squid.
“Market squid was very limited in Southern California last year,” she told The Malibu Surfside News.
Ryley explained that the squid are thought to react to the warmer water generated by El Niño, migrating further north in search of the right water temperature and conditions for spawning.
“The commercial fishery was landing squid in Eureka and off the coast of Oregon last year,” Ryley said.
She added that the management plan for the species implemented in 2005 provides an opportunity for scientists to gather data on the size, sex and abundance of the species. That data show that market squid generally have the ability to recover swiftly after an El Niño event.
“The patterns in the past show the squid are still able to reproduce and that they bounce back quickly,” she said.
While concerns are being raised over the potential impact of prolonged ocean warming on the species, the return of more normal temperature conditions in the Pacific this winter appears to have signaled the return of the squid.
An abundance of cephalopods isn’t just an auspicious sign for the fishing industry. It may mean fewer problems for local sea lion and elephant seal populations, which have experienced mass stranding events blamed in part on the same warm water that impacted the squid and other key prey species like Pacific sardines and mackerel.
“I’ve heard that market squid isn’t the sea lion’s favorite, but they will eat it,” Ryley said. “It’s an important food for other species as well. Salmonids eat them. So do sea birds.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s management plan for the market squid fishery limits the seasonal catch to 118,000 tons per season. The season opens April 1 each year, and runs until the limit is met or until March 31, whichever comes first.
This season got off to a slow start but is accelerating. As of Dec. 30, 2016, the total landings of market squid were 40,157.6 tons.
That’s in sharp contrast to 2013, the last big year for squid, when the quota for the season was reached by early November, according to NOAA Fisheries data, but a major increase from 2014 and 2015, when the numbers plummeted in Southern California.
In the Malibu area, autumn and winter are the peak time for commercial squid fishing. The shallow waters along the Malibu coast are usually a prime location for squid, which migrate to the shallow, sandy, near-shore area in the fall to spawn.
Special light boats equipped with high wattage bulbs attract the squid, which are caught using either seine or scoop nets. The lights are supposed to be shielded to reduce the impact on migratory birds and coastal residents, but compliance isn’t 100 percent yet.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates market squid as a “good alternative” for sustainability, but most of the California catch is frozen and shipped to Asia.
“The American market prefers squid with a thicker mantle,” Ryley said.
Market squid rarely grow to be more than 10 inches in length. They are short-lived; 9-10 months is usually the maximum life span, and they spawn just once, at the end of their lives.
Squid can only be caught on weekdays from the U.S.-Mexico border to the California-Oregon border. From noon Friday to noon Sunday the squid are given a “break.”
“The thinking behind that is to give them a time for uninterrupted spawning,” Ryley explained.
Squid fishing is permitted all along the Malibu coast, even within the boundaries of the Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area, located off the coast of Zuma and Lechuza beaches. Only Point Dume State Marine Reserve (Paradise Cove to Westward Beach) is off limits.
With more than half the season’s limit still swimming around in the Pacific, it’s a safe bet that the unearthly green and pink glow of the squid boats will continue to light up Malibu’s coast, drawing the curiosity of more than just squid.
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