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Fishermen, Scientists Squabble Over Squid

April 08, 2001|MATT SURMAN and GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fishermen and scientists are waging a battle over the future of a slimy six-inch invertebrate whose life cycle, many admit, is still a mystery.

Scientists are struggling to answer several basic questions about squid: How long do they live? How fast do they reproduce? And, perhaps most important, how many are there?

The answers are crucial as state and federal agencies consider whether to impose catch limits on the trendy seafood delicacy that in California waters is mostly found around the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay. But even as a new Department of Fish and Game report settled on the governor's desk last week, fishermen charged that still too little is known about squid to justify broad limits on when and where they can be pulled from the sea.

Fishermen question why they should take a financial hit to solve a problem--limited supply--that nobody is sure even exists. That skepticism is stark on the squid issue, because both sides agree that the new report--which is not yet public--answers very few questions. Despite that, it is expected to include recommendations that range from numerical limits on the number of squid that can be caught to outright fishing bans in some areas.

"They're coming up with ideas to make laws, but how do you make laws when you don't have any data?" asked Don Brockman, a squid fishermen who lives in Laguna Niguel but unloads his boat in Ventura County.

As they organize to fight catch limits, fishermen are increasingly zeroing in on the scientific reports that legislators rely on when approving regulations. Fisherman generally distrust theorizing and what it means to their way of life--and the squid debate is just the latest example, state biologists say.

"Squid is the case du jour," said Gary Davis, a senior scientist at Channel Islands National Park. "Fishermen are outstanding observers, and they really know the details they see. What they sometimes have trouble seeing is context, which creates the differences of opinion."

Squid fishing boomed in the last decade as the creature, which has a delicate taste, began showing up on upscale restaurant menus and exports exploded. It is now the highest-volume, highest-dollar segment of California's fishing industry, with an all-time high haul of about 125,000 tons last year, up from about 33,000 tons in 1990.

Fishermen Hit With License Fee

As the market expanded, so did the fishing fleet, which led to concerns by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) that the squid stock could be permanently depleted. In 1997, the Legislature passed a Sher-drafted law requiring squid fishing operations to pay a $2,500 licensing fee.

The $2 million raised over the course of three years paid for the Fish and Game report. But ocean temperatures that climbed during the El Nino storms of 1998 caused the number of squid to drop so precipitously that scientists had a hard time tracking them, resulting in a study that didn't answer as many questions as they had hoped, Fish and Game biologists say.

"El Nino took place in the middle of all this, which cut out a whole year's worth of data," said Marija Vojkovich, a senior biologist with Fish and Game.

Fishermen and biologists are divided on how to proceed. Many fishermen want to let the huge hauls continue until it's proved they hurt the squid population. Conservationists say squid should be protected until we know exactly how many there are.

In the middle are fisherman who say they wouldn't mind a crackdown--as long as they get their share.

Old-timers like Neil Guglielmo support limiting fishing by giving permits only to those operators--like himself--who have hauled in the wriggly catch for years.

"Right now there are a lot of boats and prices are down," said Guglielmo, who has specialized in squid for decades. "Things are going to get worse."

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