Apr 26 2018

Monterey Bay fishermen working round the clock to pull in plentiful catch

Monterey >> Below the surface of Monterey Bay, opalescent market squid are busily creating a new generation, laying eggs in clusters on the seafloor. And at the water’s surface, a fleet of fishing boats are ready to scoop those squid up, continuing a fishing tradition that’s well over a hundred years old.

In Monterey Harbor, a collection of at least eleven boats have been fishing for squid not far from shore since April 1, their lights visible off the coast at night. When the fishing is good, said Joe Russo, second captain and deckhand on the fishing vessel King Philip, it’s not uncommon for them to spend 24 hours a day netting tens of thousands of pounds of slippery squid with each return to shore. They continue through the spring, summer, and into early fall, if they don’t exceed the quota set by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Tons of squid being unloaded from commercial fishing boats at Monterey’s Wharf No. 2 on Wednesday. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

“From noon on Sunday until noon Friday, as long as there’s fishing you might not sleep for two days,” he said, looking remarkably awake. The crew on his boat, including his father Anthony Russo (captain of the King Philip), rushed to pump the squid out of their hold on Wednesday and into big yellow tubs, each of which holds around 1,500 pounds of catch. As soon as their boat was completely unloaded, they planned to head right back out to the squid. In the meantime the elder Russo ducked inside to catch an hour-long nap.

Market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens) is in many years the most productive and valuable fishery in California. This year, with cold water and plenty of food available, plentiful squid are coming into Monterey Bay. But in some years the squid catch plummets — researchers believe that changes in water temperature and food availability associated with El Niño years keep squid populations down. The animals live for less than a year and die after one reproductive effort, which means their population can be wildly variable with yearly conditions.

Fishermen look for aggregations of squid that arrive in the bay to spawn and lay their eggs. Using bright lights, specialized independent “light boats” can attract the animals to the surface at night, trading their services for 20 percent of whatever the fishermen catch. During the day, fishermen look for the squid to collect on their own. Boats like the King Philip, said Russo, capture their squid using purse-seine nets, surrounding the squid with a net that can be closed at the bottom. They pump squid from the net into the boat’s hold, bring it back to shore, and unload at the dock closest to the wherever the fishing is good.

For now, that’s Monterey Harbor. According to John Haynes, harbormaster for the city of Monterey, the amount of squid coming through Monterey can be wildly variable. In 2016, a squid season associated with an El Niño climate event, saw landings valued at about $3.6 million. In 2014, a good squid year brought almost $18 million worth of squid through Monterey Harbor.

From the harbor, squid caught in California is split into several streams. Some becomes bait for other fisheries like rockfish, and some is boxed up and sold to local restaurants, but the majority is frozen and sent to Asia for processing. Some of that squid, processed overseas, comes right back and is resold in California again.

“Squid has become big in the last 15 years,” said Gaspar Catanzaro, a sales associate and chef at Monterey Fish Company, Inc. When Catanzaro was a child in New York, his parents owned a market. “We couldn’t give squid away,” he recalls. Now, he recommends calamari fried or lightly sauteed in a pan with onions, garlic, tomatoes, clam juice, basil, and red chili flakes over pasta.

“Fishing literally put Monterey on the map,” said Catanzaro. Fishermen from China, Italy, and many other countries competed over access to Monterey’s rich marine life; the first local squid fishermen netted their catches from rowboats in the early 1860s. “It’s what Monterey was built for,” said Haynes.

Russo and his crew still use some of the same techniques as the fishermen of old to catch their squid, assembling and repairing their nets by hand. But they have the advantage of engines, winches, and thick steel hulls on their side; at maximum capacity, Russo’s boat can hold 138 tons of squid.

On Wednesday afternoon, one squid boat waited at anchor for its turn to unload at the wharf. In the distance, another boat was circling a school of squid accompanied by a flock of hungry gulls.

“It’s pretty much nonstop,” said Russo.


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