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Warning lights of the sea

Clusters of large, flesh-craving squid, iridescently flashing red-white-red, portend an infestation up the West Coast.

March 26, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In 1982, Nelson Ehrhardt, a professor at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, embarked on a project aboard a purse-seine vessel and, in an interview three years ago, described what he saw when the boat's large net was hauled up:

"The biomass of Dosidicus was so large that the animals could not swim or pump water through their respiratory systems, suffocating them. What was terrifying was the frenzy that this situation created.... Cannibalism took place as a natural reaction and certainly if any animal of any type, including humans, would have fallen into the net, it would have been consumed in a matter of minutes."

Humboldt squid, which historically inhabited waters within the Humboldt current off South America, were at this time entrenching themselves in the narrow gulf that separates Baja California from the Mexican mainland.

Stanford's Gilly, who has been studying squid in the Sea of Cortez for 28 years, knows of no reference to Dosidicus gigas before the 1950s.

Fishermen recalled strandings of large squid in the 1950s and '60s, and encounters with live specimens, sporadically, beginning in the 1970s.

At the same time, yellowfin tuna schools stopped venturing as far up the gulf as they once did. They might have been put off by changes in oxygen levels likely caused by agricultural runoff, which produces dense phytoplankton blooms.

Gilly has learned that Humboldt squid thrive in this oxygen minimum layer, or OML, generally at great depths. The OML contains tiny lanternfish, on which the squid rely for sustenance.

In addition, Gilly says, "Inhabiting the OML may protect juvenile or smaller Dosidicus gigas from predation" by other fish.

Furthermore, large sharks were becoming scarce because of over-fishing in the Sea of Cortez, and this might have favored the cephalopods.

A squid-fishing industry established at Santa Rosalia on the Baja California coast north of Loreto has flourished in the last decade. Hundreds of skiff fishermen depart nightly during the summer, and use multi-pronged jigs and monofilament lines to haul the beasts up, hand-over-hand.

The fishery processes 100,000 tons of squid annually, most going to Asian markets, although U.S. markets are being explored.

Gilly has estimated that 10 million squid occupy a 25-square-mile area beyond Santa Rosalia.

Nobody has estimated the number of squid currently off Southern California, but given that they have shown in great abundance simultaneously off San Diego, Orange County, Catalina Island and Palos Verdes, it could easily be in the millions.

BACK aboard the New Del Mar, the squid fishing is going strong despite the midnight hour, a bone-chilling wind and the relentless rocking.

Squid measuring nearly 4 feet are being gaffed and hauled overboard. Their squirming arms and tentacles are useless to them now. They flash incessantly as they expire. The animals are hoisted by their thick mantles and stuffed into burlap sacks -- soon to be carved into steaks.

"When you grow up, you hear all about giant squid, but these things aren't anywhere near giant," says Robert Carbajal, the captain's nephew, after bagging his first one. "But it's still bigger than anything you've ever seen before. And they're freakish."

Finally, the captain notes the late hour and orders an end to fishing.

He sets a course for port, and for at least a mile two lines of red dots -- one at 150 feet and the other at 600 feet -- fill the sonar screen.

The weary skipper shrugs at the sight. "Well," he says, "they shouldn't be hard to find tomorrow."

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