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Squid Invasion: Red Devils of the Sea Come North

By Nate Grader
Published: October 2007

Humboldt Squid

Humboldt Squid: Credit NOAA.

Off the coast of Baja California in Mexico, a net full of squid has just been hauled aboard a fishing vessel and is now suspended above the hold. Something seems strange, when you realize that these squid aren’t just passively sitting in the net awaiting to be unloaded, but are actually eating each other inside the net.

A marine biologist from Florida, who witnessed this cannibalistic scene while studying the Humboldt squid off of Baja California in the early 1980’s, remarked that if anything would have fallen in the net of Humboldt squid, including a human, it would have been devoured instantly. Humboldt squid, also known as Jumbo squid, grow up to seven feet long, have eight arms covered with teeth lined suckers, and have powerful beaks that are capable of ripping off orange-sized chunks of flesh from anything they can get a hold of.

Humboldt squid, a species that historically lived in the warm waters off the coast of Central and South America, have recently invaded the more temperate waters of southern California and the Monterey Bay region and have even been spotted as far north as British Columbia. However, some California fishermen dispute the new “invasion”, claiming that they have encountered the creature for years. In Mexico the squid is known as diablo rojo (red devil), and its ferocity is legendary among local fishermen and divers, who have reported attacks during routine dives.

Could this voracious predator become a common sight off the coast of California?

Scientists who have studied the squid think so. Bruce Robison and Louis Zeidberg, marine biologists at Stanford University who recently published a paper on the invasion of Humboldt squid into California waters, think that a combination of warming waters caused by climate change and a decline in large open water predators such as sharks and tuna have helped this predator proliferate into areas where previously it had not existed. By all indications it appears that the Humboldt squid may now be a permanent resident in California waters, including in our marine reserves.  That has scientists and fisheries managers worried as many believe that the expansion of the Humboldt squid may threaten the marine ecosystem. The squid may devour entire stocks of commercially valuable fish such as the Pacific whiting.

Fisherman aboard the New Sea Angler out of Bodega Bay.Others are not so worried about the expansion of the Humboldt squid. In Southern California, a thriving sport fishery for the squid has existed for the better part of a decade. Charter boat captains operating out of the central coast to Bodega Bay began offering fishing trips a couple years ago for the Humboldt squid as a way to keep fishing when the salmon, rockfish, or albacore tuna fishing was slow. 

Rick Powers, captain of the New Sea Angler out of Bodega Bay, recently told The Stockton Record that "I discovered the Jumbo squid on Cordell Bank about three years ago. These powerful squid will attack anything like a pack of hungry wolves, and are great sport to catch on a rod. They are truly a delicacy to eat, as well." Local restaurants, such as Rosine’s in Monterey, are beginning to see the benefits of having giant calamari swim close to home and are now serving steaks of the squid.

While the squid may threaten certain species of fish unaccustomed to their permanent presence, it seems that humans have little to fear. The squid prefer to spend most of their time in thousands of feet of water and only venture to a few hundred feet of the surface at nighttime to feed. 

humboldt squidBut could the spectacle of nets filled to the brim with hundred-pound squid eating each other ever become a common sight off the California coast?  It is perhaps too early to tell.  With global climate change affecting wind and water currents in unpredictable ways, not to mention the conservation status of large pelagic species such as tuna, scientists believe it is difficult to predict what effect the new predator will have to the marine ecosystems off our coast.

However, the squid has attracted a lot of attention and not just from anglers; in November, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute will host a major scientific conference to help figure out why the squid have taken up residence off the California coast and what possible impact that may have for the marine ecosystem.