Bright lights seen off the shores of Santa Barbara signify the return of squid-fishing fleets locally, a common occurrence in recent years but still a bit unusual, experts say.
Santa Barbara isn’t typically a popular squid-spawning locale. But cooler surface temperatures in nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean waters the past four years have caused smaller California market squid to spawn like crazy everywhere, according to Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of California Wetfish Producers Association.
A market squid usually grows to eight inches long with its eight legs and two feeding tentacles— sometimes up to a foot — and lives about nine months, she said.
The animals are one of the smallest of all 300-plus species of squid, and die after laying eggs in sandy, shallow water, which is where fishermen come in.
Most squid are caught with help from light boats, which shine bright lights at the water to attract the animals to the surface. When they do, fishing boats catch the squid in nets and share about 20 percent of profits with their helpers, Pleschner-Steele said.
She said squid-fishing season lasts nearly year-round, from April 1 through March 1, but closes whenever fishermen reach the statewide cap of 118,000 tons — a rarity.
Boats usually follow squid from one spawning ground to the next, starting in Monterey and then heading south, sometimes netting near the northern Channel Islands and Ventura.
Pleschner-Steele, who lives in Buellton, said La Niña effects have spurred squid to spawn near Santa Barbara and Carpinteria for unknown reasons, and fishermen hit the state’s tonnage quota in 2010.
“Squids are a fascinating animal,” Pleschner-Steele said. “We are learning more about them, and we’re learning how much we don’t know about them.”
The California Wetfish Producers Association was founded in 2004 to promote sustainable fishing and to foster collaborative research with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The nonprofit also governs other so-called “wetfish,” such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and coastal tuna.
Although the squid fishery is the state’s largest in terms of volume and revenue, Pleschner-Steele said fishermen haven’t seen such solid production since the last La Niña effects in the late 1990s.
The boom is likely nearing its end, however, she said.
“We’ve just had four banner squid seasons,” she said. “The conditions were so ripe in so many places. These are small little animals but they are sure tasty.”