May 14 2021

It’s squid season on Monterey Bay

The sight of dozens of squid fishing boats on Monterey Bay is enough to make even longtime locals do a double take. But squid fishing is nothing new — it’s been a part of Monterey’s vibrant history for well over a century. Discover why this slippery — and sustainable — cephalopod is a local legend.

Typically, when you look out across Monterey Bay, you’ll see a few sailboats or fishing vessels. But come springtime, residents of the Monterey area – and some viewers tuning in to our Monterey Bay Live Cam — may see a veritable fleet of fishing boats crisscrossing the bay, their nets dragging behind them. That’s because spring is squid season here on the Central Coast.

Springtime is squid time

The common or California market squid, Doryteuthis opalescens, is one of California’s biggest commercial fisheries. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, landings from California market squid can be worth as much as $70 million per year.

California market squid spawn along the Central Coast each spring.

Each spring, squid show up in large groups along the Central Coast to reproduce. Squid mature quickly and live a short life – soon after spawning, the squid will die. Fishermen take advantage of the squid’s lifestyle. The fishery targets the large aggregations of spawning squid, ideally catching them after they lay their eggs. Squid boats shine bright lights at night – often visible from shore — to attract the squid towards their purse seine nets.

The abundance of squid varies from year to year, often in response to the water temperature and available food supply. El Niño years, when the water temperature is warmer, are notoriously bad for squid fishermen. Other years, upwelling in the Monterey Bay provides the perfect combination of cold water and bountiful krill and other prey items that squid need.


Squid fishing gets its start

In the late 1800s, as Monterey’s fishing industry grew, different groups of fishermen began to compete for access to the bay’s prime fishing grounds. Chinese migrant fishermen found themselves being pushed out of the profitable fishing grounds by other families.

In his book, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, Steve Palumbi recounts how these fishermen changed their strategy — and subsequently changed California’s fishing industry.

Instead of competing with other fishermen for salmon and other finfish, the Chinese fishermen began to fish for squid – a popular dried product in Asia, but as of yet untapped in California. They fished at night, avoiding direct conflict with other fishermen. The bright torches they burned brought the squid to the surface — the likely predecessor of modern-day squid lights visible on the bay at night.

China still plays a large role in the California market squid fishery today. Most of the squid caught locally is shipped to Asia for processing, before being shipped around the world to be sold — even back to Monterey where it was first caught.

A squid fishing boat sailing in Monterey Bay.

Squid fishing boats are visible on Monterey Bay in spring as fishermen target large groups of spawning California market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens).

California squid is a sustainable seafood choice

Dine at one of the many restaurants along Cannery Row or Fisherman’s Wharf, and you’re sure to find calamari or squid steak on the menu. If you’re tempted by one of these squid dishes, ask if it’s California market squid. If so, go ahead and order it – it’s rated a green Best Choice by the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

One reason for the Best Choice rating is the health of the California market squid stock. Squid grow up fast, reproduce and die – all within a year. Fishermen target the mature spawners, ideally catching them after they spawn, but before they would have died naturally. This allows the squid population to maintain healthy levels and support a thriving fishery.

Also, because squid gather close together, fishermen can set their purse seine nets around the group of squid, limiting the number of other species caught as bycatch.

The California Department of Fish and Game manages the squid fishery with a permit system that limits access to fishing, seasonal catch limits and weekend closures to give the squid time to reproduce.

If you happen to see the parade of squid boats on Monterey Bay one day, take a moment to celebrate the success of federal and state agencies in sustainably managing the California market squid fishery. Their work means we’ll be able to preserve our ocean backyard, support California fishermen, and enjoy locally caught calamari for the foreseeable future.

Learn more about sustainable seafood — including what you can do to make good seafood choices.

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