Thursday, September 5, 2013

In-Seine Squid

Last July I sailed out of Half Moon Bay on a pelagic birding trip. A few miles off the coast we encountered a squid shoal, a grouping of many thousand market or opalescent Squid (Doryteuthis Opalescens).
Mineo Bros Squid Boat unloading at Johnson's Pier,
Pillar Point Harbor, California.
This has been typically a real cash crop along the California coast but for the last 7 years squid activity around Half Moon Bay has been non-existent. Mike McHenry has been fishing the waters of Pillar Point Harbor for the last 30 years and is the only local squid boat captain. His boat the Meva M actually sank July 24th 1984 due to being overloaded with squid. It remained on the bottom for 1 month before being raised and restored.

Normally about 80% of California squid is harvested in Southern California mostly around the Channel Islands with the rest coming from Monterey. This year the squid returned in massive numbers again near Half Moon Bay and suddenly many squid boats from the west coast and Canada descended on the Pillar Point Harbor. Fish and Wildlife has set a yearly quota of about 118,000 tons which amounts to about $70,000,000! A typical squid boat can net about 80-150 tons of squid which can be worth up to $90,000. During a recent survey of the harbor I spied about 7 non-local boats. 

Container of Ice and Squid

I'm not an expert on fishing or squids but I'm very interested in local activities in and around the coastside. I often hang out at the harbor, something about a genuine working fishing village draws my interest.  If you hang around the harbor long enough something interesting and exciting will happen such as the squid bloom now, or a sinking or rescue at sea, world class surfing at Mavericks, and the constant arrivals and departures of exotic birds from around the world.

Purse Seine are large long nets that hang vertically in the water like a fence. A small skiff holds one end in place while a larger 'seiner' vessel encircles a school of fish or squid. A rope along the net bottom is then pulled "pursing" the net- closing of the seine bottom like a drawstring. A successful set may yield a harvest of about 40 tons. Much squid fishing is done at night. The boat locates the squid using sonar and powerful lights mounted on the boat draw the squid to the surface for netting.
Purse Seine Fisheries

Pillar Point Harbor is well equipped to handle large quantities of squid and has streamlined the process. At Johnson Pier Morningstar Fisheries uses a vacuum system to off load the boats. The squid are put in large containers filled with ice and loaded onto large tractor trailer trucks and hauled down to Southern California Seafood of Watsonville. 95% percent of the squid is exported and 70% goes to China.

It can be a very chaotic scene on the pier with several forklifts speeding around at break neck speed. I've seen angry forklift operators yelling warnings to tourist that inadvertently wander into the midst of the operation. I'm thinking why don't they cone off the pier during these times as most tourist on the pier don't have a clue as to what's going on.

Squid Loading at Pillar Point Harbor

Squid distribution is dependent on water temperature and there have been attempts to relate squid movement with El Nino. The last big El Nino event occurred in 1996-97 and this was a big squid year around Half Moon Bay. That year the winter rains doubled it's usual average with San Francisco getting about 40 inches of rain. According to NOAA this year and into early 2014 we are looking at ENSO neutral variability meaning no El Nino or La Nina are expected.
Lady J from Monterey Off-loading Squid
Johnson Pier

 Some similarities between 1997 and today from my personal observations are, more bait fish (from bird observations), more squid, and an unusual humid spell! It will be interesting to see what this winter brings weather wise, as we have just come off two years in a row with below normal rainfall.      

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