LONG-LINERS setting out for months in pursuit of elusive tuna, salmon fishermen wrestling aboard 60-pound monsters, Dungeness crabbers braving angry seas to retrieve their precious catch -- commercial fishermen are the cowboys of the modern age, heroes braving the elements to best their wily prey.
Funny, you never hear that about squid fishermen -- and for good reason, actually. But they are the backbone of the California fishing industry.
Though their work may be unsung, their catch for the last decade has been the biggest -- both in volume and value -- of any in the state, worth more than $230 million. That's more than $1 million a year better than the next most lucrative fishery, Dungeness crab. And the majority of that squid has come from Southern California.
What's more, in these days of troubled oceans, the squid catch is one of the most environmentally sound -- fast-growing and almost infinitely renewable. And to keep it that way, it's one of the few instances where fishermen have voluntarily chosen to be regulated.
The only thing squid fishing lacks is drama. Catching squid is about as exciting as raking leaves -- albeit raking leaves in a 20- mph breeze on a lawn that stretches from Monterey to the Mexican border. And you never know for sure just where that pile of leaves is going to show up.
On this mid-January night, the squid are right off Point Fermin, so close we can see the lights of homes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from the fishing boats.
There are all kinds of squid in the world, and they range in size from extremely small ("baby squid," Sepiola rondeletii, the rage in European restaurants, are 1 to 2 inches long) to extremely large (giant squid, Architeuthis dux, measuring up to 60 feet).
Our local variety, California market squid, or, more formally, Loligo opalescens, are on the small end of the scale, rarely exceeding 9 inches in length. This is not to be confused with the 6-foot-long Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, which have strayed into Southern California waters lately, giving sportfishermen a thrill.
We chug out from the Los Angeles Harbor to the fishing grounds aboard the Donz Rig, a 42-foot boat that is owned by Don Brockman, 23, and his father, Donald Sr. As soon as we clear the breakwater, we can see the squid fleet in place -- a line of boats lighting up the early evening like a string of pearls.
At least that's the way it looks from a distance. As we pull closer, the industrial nature of the operation becomes clear. What once were pretty lights on the near horizon now look like a convoy of a couple of dozen freight-hauling big rigs.
Shift to southern waters
CALIFORNIA squid tend to gather in clusters just offshore. Their fisheries are concentrated in Southern and Central California: in the summer out of Monterey and in the winter from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
Historically, Monterey Bay was the center. Fishermen from China established summer camps there to catch and dry squid to take home as far back as the 1860s. Then Italian immigrants took over in the early 20th century by introducing a more efficient means of fishing.
But beginning about 1985, there was a dramatic swing south. Now, depending on the year, as much as 90% of the squid caught off the California coast comes from between Ventura and Los Angeles, particularly around the Channel Islands.
Brockman pulls the Donz Rig into position next to the Barbara H., the 80-foot fishing boat owned by David Haworth, 42. Squid fishermen work in pairs: One vessel is the light boat, and it attracts the fish. The other has the nets, and it catches them. Partnerships are for the season, but they can be renewed for years. Brockman and Haworth are in their second year.
Squid fishing tends to be a family business. A recent study found that all 12 of the San Pedro skippers surveyed were second-generation fishermen, as were seven of eight from Monterey and more than half of Ventura's.
That holds true in this case. Haworth's father fished out of San Diego, and Brockman's still runs a popular sportfishing boat out of Huntington Beach, in addition to owning shares in Donz Rig and another light boat, the Squid-a-Lot.
In view of that, it is perhaps not surprising that when the industry decided to regulate itself in the face of a rapidly increasing fishery, it did so mainly by closing to outside skippers. If you want to be a squid fisherman today, you have to buy a license from one who is ready to give it up.
Once Brockman finds his place next to the Barbara H., he switches on his lights. They're mounted on a platform above the cabin, six 2,000-watt bulbs on either side. Gradually they grow brighter until it seems nearly daylight. On deck, the quality of the light is like being on the field in an NFL stadium during a night game. This gives everything a peculiarly staged quality, like we're all actors in a play -- even the swarms of gulls that dart in and out of the light, looking for squid treats.