Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#286: In The Market... for Squid!

A few years back we had a banner year for squid on the leeward side of Catalina. There were so many squid in our waters that I was able to film them mating in daylight, avoiding the cold and dark option of night diving to film them. It seemed the squid started at the West End, worked their way down the leeward coast of the island, rounded the corner at the East End and continued up the windward coast. I've hoped for a replay ever since I upgraded to my high definition video camcorder... but to no avail.

Two years ago there was a major squid run at Redondo Beach, and last year in the San Diego area. According to the squid boats fishing off our coast, this has not been a good year for squid. Well, actually, it has been a good year for them... but not for those fishing for them! I have yet to see a single squid, or even a cluster of their candle-like eggs. All I've seen are three or four single egg cases, and they didn't look very healthy.

Finally, I saw my first live squid of the season while diving off Scuba Luv's King Neptune. No, it wasn't at Hen Rock where I had great success filming them a few years ago. In fact, I wasn't even underwater when I saw them... I was on my surface interval! They were in the boat's bait tank. Captain Mike had netted a few dozen to use in his quest to land dinner. I decided I might as well film them from the surface of the tank so I'd at least have some high definition footage of them.

I've heard that the market or opalescent squid mating orgies are very patchy in nature. They don't seem to mate in large numbers in the same areas each year. This may explain the peaks off Catalina, then Redondo Beach, then San Diego over the past three years... at least in southern California. Of course the squid fishers may feel otherwise, and they spend a lot more time looking for them than I do. If I'm not filming them, I do like to eat them.

Why would the squid do this? Being a fairly tasty and abundant food source not only for humans but for many marine critters leaves them pretty vulnerable to predation. If they used the same mating locations at exactly the same time each year, predators (and fishers) would know exactly where to find them. For example, the gray whales calf in their breeding grounds on the Baja coast like Magdalena Bay. Smart orcas or killer whales know to just wait outside the mouth of Mag Bay to pick off a few of the calves when they start heading up north each year.

Although market squid are known from Alaska to the tip of Baja, they are most common from southern British Columbia to central Baja. Adults live to depths of 1,600 feet but the young are more cautious, generally staying above 300 feet. Usually white in color, their surface tissues are covered with pigment cells known as chromatophores. Their fairly advanced nervous system causes these chromatophores to open and close, markedly changing the squid's appearance. This may be a form of communication, or a defense mechanism against predators.

Squid are hungry predators. They eat a wide variety of prey including crustaceans like shrimp and krill, bottom-dwelling worms, other molluscs and even small fish. Their sharp beak shreds their prey which is further broken up by the radula or grinding structure inside the mouth. In turn they are eaten by me. Oh, and my competitors including sea lions, sharks, other fish and sea birds.

The market squid fishery began in the 1850's and is the most important one in California in terms of economic value and tonnage. In years past squid were fished off Catalina from October to March. The presence of squid boats here this late may be a result of the poor yields, or the closure of squid fishing in the recently designated marine reserves in the northern Channel Islands, especially off Anacapa. In years past, 7-10% of the total catch was taken from those now protected waters.

Now those who read my column regularly know my culinary skills are largely limited to microwaving and barbecuing. Back in the early 1980's when I was living temporarily in Chicago to work with my Dad, I had a bright idea. Burhops Seafood had market squid on sale, so I bought several dozen. I invited an eclectic group of friends from my high school days, Harvard and Catalina to enjoy a feast of stuffed steamed squid. I spent all day preparing various stuffings to put in the squid's body cavities and proudly served the main course to my friends. The only guest who actually ate them with me was Allen Hubble, who many Catalina old timers may remember. Thankfully both of us had pretty good appetites... and cast iron stomachs!

© 2008 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass," "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" or the new "Sharks and Rays of Southern California" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Market squid in the bait tank showing chromatophore changes; one in Capt. Mike's hand,
and underwater mating a few years ago off Hen Rock

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia