The Straight Dope on Squid

Squid photo

Localized depletion and bycatch are real in this fishery and need to be addressed

If you fish at all, really, you know that just about everything eats squid. Fluke, striped bass, black seabass, scup, weakfish, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, billfish, mahi… I could probably go on.

And hey… I eat it too! Because it’s pretty damn tasty. But as is generally the case with anything, there are tradeoffs.

Most squid boats utilize large small-mesh nets and often take strikingly large quantities from very specific, ecologically rich areas…

While it’s very difficult to prove, it’s pretty clear to anglers in such areas that this sort of large-scale concentrated fishing on a forage source adversely affects fishing opportunities. And… given that just about every predator species out there eats squid, well, those fish get caught too, and mostly tossed back dead. In fact, the squid fishery is one of the most bycatch prone out there, with an estimated 35% discard rate.

While this hasn’t appeared to be a terribly big problem for anglers up until recently, save for the occasional “floater” striped bass incidents in Montauk, it is now.

Not only has the market price of longfin squid gone up considerably in current years, but recently occurring or recently discovered (I’m not quite sure which is the case) local/inshore aggregations of squid in the spring and summer months, along with electronics (AIS) that allow everyone to see where someone is fishing, have caused a boom in squid harvest on or close to locally important fishing grounds.

What has been occurring off of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket is probably the best example. I wrote about this in detail several months ago here: In Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, There Ain’t No Stripas.

While the squid industry will deny this up and down, you’d be hard pressed to find a local guide, charter captain, surfcaster, etc., who wouldn’t agree that the striped bass fishery off the Islands has tanked since it became regular to see one to two dozen squid boats working the area south of the islands in spring and summer. Sure there could, and likely are, other factors involved, but given the removal of all that squid, and the subsequent observed lack of squid in the rips, well, it’s easy to understand how people might put two and two together.

There’s also been quite a bit of concern on whether or not such concentrated squid fishing in what are well-documented longfin squid spawning grounds may negatively affect spawning. Bycatch of squid mops (egg masses) during the months of May, June, and July has been heavy and increasing in the last several years.

While sure, some contend that that such egg mops are fine if thrown back, common sense would tell you that egg-masses attached to the bottom (likely for a reason), pulled up in bottom trawls and compressed in the cod end probably don’t do very well. There’s some science to support this as well.

Which brings us to where we are now.

Action at the Mid-Atlantic Council

Next Wednesday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council will take final action on a draft amendment to the Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan, which seeks to address first, latent squid permits and second, “trimester 2” (May to August) longfin squid management.

The first objective is of course important, as a relatively small portion of vessels with squid permits account for the majority of landings in most years, and there is concern that given recent market price increases, if all those permit holders were to participate in the squid fishery it would result in an extraordinary escalation of landings.

But the second objective – addressing what has become a geographically concentrated, spring/summer squid fishery – is more directly linked to current localized depletion, bycatch, and spawning protection issues, in what are generally the same areas and the same times most recreational fishing occurs.

What the Council decides to do here could, and likely will, directly impact inshore recreational fishing, particularly for striped bass, and particularly in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It may also impact future squid abundance in general.

Background and Amendment Alternatives

For a full background on the dynamics of squid and how they are managed please see the Fissues Background Piece on squid.

The annual longfin squid quota is divided among three 4-month trimesters: Trimester 1 (Jan to April), Trimester 2 (May to August) and Trimester 3 (September to December). The trimester system generally follows the annual migration the squid make: offshore in the winter and inshore in the summer.

Currently, if the entire Trimester 1 (winter) quota isn’t caught, Trimester 2 (spring and summer) quota can be increased by 50%.

Furthermore, once the quota plus the rollover is reached, there continues to be a whopping 2,500-pound incidental limit (what commercial fishermen are allowed to keep when the quota has been met and when they aren’t supposed to be targeting squid). Given the increasing market price of longfin, and relative ease of reaching squid 3 miles off shore, it was worthwhile for whole lotta fishermen to target them at that level, and take home 2500 pounds each day.

The result is that an extraordinary amount of squid can be caught in those critical areas where squid aggregate (i.e. off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) from May to August, when the squid are supposed to be spawning, when they are supposed to be feeding all those predators moving though, when the bycatch of important species like striped bass is higher, and it is being done with bottom trawling gear when squid eggs mops are on the bottom.

To some extent, this what “Alternative set 4” in the Amendment hopes to address.

Alternative 4B would eliminate any quota rollover from the winter to the spring/summer trimester. This would be a good thing. It would theoretically prevent that extra 50% from being caught, leaving a lot more squid in the water, while still allowing industry to catch the same overall quota.

Whether it’s doable with this Council, though, is in question.

If I had to call it, I’d say we end up with Alternative 4C (note: this also happens to be the Council staff recommendation), which would reduce the rollover by 25%. I wouldn’t be unhappy with that, as it’s still an awful lot of squid left in the water. What would really suck though is if they decided to do neither and stick with status quo. Given the staff recommendation, I don’t think that will happen, but I’ve been wrong before.

Alternatives 4D and 4E are pretty darn important too. 4D would implement a 250 lb incidental trip limit after the quota has been met. That’s a pretty significant reduction from the current 2,500 lb limit, and would almost undoubtedly discourage directing on squid after Trimester 2 has been closed. While I think 4D is better, Alternative 4E, which puts in place a 500 lb incidental trip limit, would provide similar protection, just not as strong.

Again, the Council can decide to do nothing here and go with the status quo 2,500 lb incidental limit, but I doubt it will. Even industry seems to want to fix this loophole, which basically makes summer fishing unlimited.

Real solutions

Truth be told, however, I think the solution to what I believe are real problems – specifically localized depletion, wasteful bycatch of recreationally and commercially important species, not to mention damaged cause by raking up lots squid mops and possibly jeopardizing the future productivity of the squid resource – is a time and area closure in those biologically rich areas (i.e. just south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) that are seriously at risk.

Yet, if you read the above referenced blog (here it is again: In Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, There Ain’t No Stripas), then you know such buffer zones were taken off the table before the Council could even gather information on such a closure, for reasons I’m still not quite clear on. Well, that’s not entirely true. Whether it was implicit or not, the squid industry just didn’t want a time and area closure on the table. That was unfortunate. At the very least the Council should have seen any analysis the staff would have come up with to, well, actually make an informed decision, rather than a political one.

What we ended up with is a commitment to “maybe” consider buffer zones with a future action. We’ll see where that goes.

Conclusion

Getting back to the tradeoffs, let me be clear that, while we don’t have a peer-reviewed stock assessment for longfin squid, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that overfishing is occurring… and overall catch has been relatively stable in recent years. And that’s good, especially for those of us that like to eat them without a guilty conscience.

Never once has anyone suggested, to my knowledge, a reduction in squid quota. This is really all about when and where they are caught.

Industry argues that it is more efficient for them to travel short distances and knock the crap out of spawning spring/summer squid, in ecologically rich areas where they catch a whole bunch of other recreationally and commercially important species that get thrown back dead.

Occasionally you’ll hear the refrain that everyone will go out of business if they can’t fish unencumbered in these areas. Given the history of that fishery, and the wide array of regions/areas they have fished, not to mention the growing market price, it’s difficult to believe that.

What we need is a clear discussion of the ecosystem tradeoffs between what is likely a marginal increase in efficiency and short-term profitability, and the known and potential risk to the squid fishery itself and other valuable species when fishing effort increases in particular areas during summer spawning. Not to mention how such a fishery might affect other ones… Like, I dunno, the recreational fishery for striped bass?

While Council staff touches on some tradeoffs in the draft Amendment, the Council itself has yet to have such a thorough discussion.

It should… And hopefully it will this week.

Stay tuned.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

1 comment on “The Straight Dope on Squid

  1. Capt. John, very thorough piece on a very sensitive issue, particularly for my state of Rhode Island, which lands more calamari than any other state in the union. Hope cool and conservation minds prevail.

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