Jumbo Squid Invade California Coastal Waters Humboldt squid have been spotted in increasing numbers off the coast of California. The adaptable animals can reach seven feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds. Marine biologist William Gilly and other researchers are trying to understand the reasons for the population shift.
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Jumbo Squid Invade California Coastal Waters

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Jumbo Squid Invade California Coastal Waters

Jumbo Squid Invade California Coastal Waters

Jumbo Squid Invade California Coastal Waters

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  • Transcript

Humboldt squid have been spotted in increasing numbers off the coast of California. The adaptable animals can reach seven feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds. Marine biologist William Gilly and other researchers are trying to understand the reasons for the population shift.


You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

In recent years, boaters and fishermen off of the California coast have been noticing a new creature in the waves and on the ends of their hooks, jumbo squid. I guess you'd call them more correctly Humboldt squid. They can reach five feet long, they can weigh up to 100 pounds, and they seem to be increasing in numbers.

But before you have visions of giant calamari festivals, let's find out a little bit of more - a little bit more about these squid. And joining me to talk about the rise of the Humboldt squid, what it might mean, is William Gilly. He's professor of cell and developmental biology and of marine and organismal biology at the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. That's in the Pacific Grove area of California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. WILLIAM GILLY (Professor, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University): Hi, Ira. Thanks.

FLATOW: Well, where do these squid come from?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILLY: That's a good question. They probably originated in the South American region - they were discovered there originally and off Mexico probably as well. And they've seem to have spread north.

FLATOW: How common are they - would just a normal fisherman out there fishing for something else reel in a squid?

Dr. GILLY: Well, when they're in the area, they're extremely common. So I know fishing boats - our fishing boater ourselves caught about 60 of them in a few hours we were doing research a few months ago.

FLATOW: Sixty, 6-0?

Dr. GILLY. Sixty, 6-0.


Dr. GILLY: And I know that some of the sport-fishing boats have been catching bigger numbers than that. I think the average in San Diego, some - a writer told me was - sportswriter, they were bringing in, like, 1,000 a week.

FLATOW: So they're going out fishing for them because...

Dr. GILLY: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: A little olive oil and some garlic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILLY: Well, it's a big seller. It's the biggest commercial squid fishery in the world right now, not in the U.S., mostly in South America and most of it goes to Asia and Europe.

FLATOW: And so now that they're migrating, I guess, up the coast.

Dr. GILLY: Well, they have had a range expansion so we don't know exactly whether - what kind of migrations are involved in that. That's something we're working on. We believe they go from Monterey, California, further north during the summer and fall and then turn around and come back again, pass through Monterey, sort of this time of year, and heading back to warm waters to spawn.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about the Humboldt squid. And we have some video of this on our Web site at sciencefriday.com if you'd like to look for them.

So could this be due to climate change at all, the temperature of the water or currents or anything like that?

Dr. GILLY: Well, I think it is, by and large. There's two rules - two schools of thought really, and I think both are likely to be important. The climate change sort of angle holds that, you know, the other - changes in the ocean climate are going on, not necessarily on the surface, the type we always hear about, but a quarter mile down where oxygen is decreasing in the Eastern Pacific anyway. And that's an environment that the squid utilized and sort of favor. So I think as that environment changes, the squid are following and probably following food that's changing in relation to that environmental change.

The other school of thought is that fishing for fish that are both competitors and predators on the squid, especially on smaller squid when they're younger, may have had some long-term impacts on the numbers of squids. So the numbers may have been boosted by the lack of competition, possibly predation, but the spreading, I think, is more likely to be due to the change in underwater environment, which is just becoming news now so it's really interesting.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, a lot of times when you hear scientists studying wild animals, they catch them, tag them, and release them. Does that happen with squid too?

Dr. GILLY: Yes, we've done quite a bit of that. This is the first squid that's been studied with electronic tags that report back where the squid's diving and where it's migrating to. So we've learned a lot from that. That's how we really learned that they're associating themselves with this low-oxygen environment under the - at mid-water depths and feeding - probably feeding in there. We're not sure of that, but they're spending a lot of time in there.

FLATOW: Are they a nuisance at all to other fish life? Are they decimating population or people in, you know, swimming, things like that?

Dr. GILLY: Well, I don't think there's a danger to swimmers, although that's a huge big news thing that makes the news about every year or so. But they certainly are a danger to things that they eat. So - and they can eat pretty much anything they want that's smaller than them. So - and they seem to be eating larger fish as they move north, so there's a correlation in prey size to latitude basically. And the numbers, it all depends on the numbers so...

FLATOW: So you don't know if there a lot more of the squid or that they've just move northward?

Dr. GILLY: We don't know that for sure because nobody has a good handle on the numbers. One way to do that is to use scientific sonar acoustics to actually compute biomass and count the squid. We're doing that in the Gulf of California. It's a simpler system than off the California coast, but it could be done and should be done and that's a really important step to get a handle on the numbers of these things, because we know what they're eating. Our colleague in Santa Cruz has been looking at the sonic content of squid caught all up and down of Pacific Coast, he's at NOAA.

And so we know what individual squid eat and we if know how many squid there are, we could put a sort of estimate on their impacts on different kinds of fisheries. But they are eating things that we care about, like sardines. Hake is one of their favorite foods. We you know, people don't really hear about hake much, but it's the biggest fishery in the Pacific Northwest. They're eating the little calamari that we off California that we like to have as little rings. They're eating different kinds of pelagic rockfishes. They are interfering with sport fisheries as well as providing sport fisheries. The squid is both a blessing and a curse in many ways.

FLATOW: Lets go to the phones. Don(ph) in Sunny Valley, Oregon. Hi, Don.

DON (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DON: Thank you for taking my call.

Dr. GILLY: Hi.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Go ahead.

DON: I was lucky enough to fish these squid down in a Sea of Cortez, Baja, California, near a place called Santa Rosalia...

Dr. GILLY: Oh, I know it well. We do most of our work there. I love it.

DON: Oh, yeah, it's beautiful. Too bad you can't train the squid to eat jellyfish maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILLY: That's a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DON: Yeah. Well, there yeah, there you know, that might take some doing, but good luck with that and wonderful show, wonderful commentary.

FLATOW: Yeah. Have you, so...

DON: It's going to be interesting if they my come all the way up here to my area, I fish up here in Southern Oregon.

Dr. GILLY: Oh, they're there. We tagged squid off Westport, Washington, last September. They were all over the place.

DON: Boy, I should bug you about how far out and what depth, but I'll do my own research up here on that.

FLATOW: No, wait. Let's get that. Let's share that. You got a secret for us, Bill, about how to catch them?

Dr. GILLY: Oh, how to catch them? Well, if they're there, they're pretty difficult not to catch, actually. That's one of the most remarkable things, but I've never seen I've fished a lot in the ocean and I've never seen any fish that's this easy to catch in such numbers. It's really quiet remarkable.

DON: Yeah, you can't keep them off the hook and they don't fight worth a darn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do you have a...

DON: Oh, and they're messy. They're messy, messy, messy. But anyway...

FLATOW: Don, have you caught...

DON: ...thanks for taking my call again.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

DON: Good luck.

Dr. GILLY: Okay, thanks.

FLATOW: He's excited. He wanted to...

Dr. GILLY: Okay. Excellent.

FLATOW: Yeah. So I mean, so they're easy to catch and they're good eating, so, you know people are catching them as you say by the ton.

Dr. GILLY: Well, yeah. And there are we've been talking to some groups in California that would like to start some sustainable fishery-type of things. So a big question for them too is how many there are, how long will the squid stay there. But right now there's a and I'm not aware of real fishery in the U.S. There is a fishery in Mexico at the place where that where Don mentioned, and they harvest about, I dont know, 50,000 tons a year from the Gulf of California.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Question in from Second Life from Derfexener(ph) who wants to know, since whales eat these Humboldt squid, is the whale population following them?

Dr. GILLY: That's an excellent question. It is true that in Sea of Cortez, sperm whales have moved in. The squid really invaded there about sometime in the last 30 years, we think. They didn't seem be there much before that. So there's a lot of squid there now and there's a lot of sperm whales. So you can see areas down there that are just where you can see 50 sperm whales and there's just squid all over. Off California supposedly the sperm whale population has increased over the last 20 years. Around Monterey, we see a lot more Risso's dolphins, its a squid-eating dolphin, and we had been seeing before. But I don't know of any really - I don't think there's really good numbers on most of these marine mammal populations. But personally, I think the sperm whales and the beaked whales and the toothed whales are benefiting tremendously from this resource.

FLATOW: Is there any northerly limit to them? Does it get too cold?

Dr. GILLY: The northern most limit has been around Sitka, Alaska. I have a photo that somebody took in Tracy Arm - it's a fjord. I was there two years ago, but the photo was taken in 2005 of a squid swimming at the surface next to sort of little mini icebergs. And when I was there we took a water sample, it was three degrees C and it was about 30 or 40 percent seawater. So that's a really harsh environment for a squid that's normally in the tropics. But and I don't know why the squid was there or why it would even want to go into that environment, but there it was.

FLATOW: And that's the big mystery.

Dr. GILLY: Yeah.

FLATOW: Why would a tropical squid want to be in Alaska?

Dr. GILLY: Well, they are tropical, but as I said, they live at this deep depth that is maybe a thousand feet deep where there's a little bit of oxygen and it's cold. So they're really a mid-water species that migrates to the surface periodically to feed at night. So I think the temperature issue is something they deal with on a daily basis. In the Gulf of California they could - it could be eight degrees C where they're at depth during the day and 30 degrees C at night at the surface. And the tagging shows they really don't like to stay in warm water very long. If they enter warm water, they get out of it again within a few minutes.

FLATOW: How much resources are being invested in figuring this mystery out?

Dr. GILLY: How much resources?

FLATOW: I mean, how much money? The people is this a really big problem that the you know, the researchers are...

Dr. GILLY: I think, you know, it's really the there's very little resources being spent on a scale of what the fishery would be worth or what its impacts are. There's only a few research groups really addressing it, I think. But people are getting more concerned, especially in the Pacific Northwest the squid have sort of entrenched themselves in canyon system of the Olympic Peninsula, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they're eating a lot of hake there.

But people are very worried that they might be eating salmon, so that's something we're looking in to. And there actually has been some preliminary sign that that might be going on, but again we don't know to what extent it is because you need to look at a lot of squid, and we need to get some handle on the numbers.

FLATOW: Yeah, and you need to have more folks working on this.

Dr. GILLY: But - well, that'd be good, yeah.


Dr. GILLY: And that means more funding.

FLATOW: Well, we know...

Dr. GILLY: I'm going to talk to Jane.

FLATOW: Talk to Jane, she was on here - well, she was on...

Dr. GILLY: I know, I...

FLATOW: You just missed her.

Dr. GILLY: I heard her a little bit.

FLATOW: All right, Bill, thanks a lot for taking time to be with us.

Dr. GILLY: Okay.

FLATOW: And good luck to you in your squid hunting.

Dr. GILLY: Thanks a lot, Ira. Bye.

FLATOW: You're welcome. William Gilly is professor of cell and the developmental biology and of marine and organismal - going to pronounce that correctly - organismal biology at the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. That's at Pacific Grove, California.

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