Oregon’s crabbing industry is known as the state’s most lucrative in the fishing market, but another food from the sea is thriving off the coast: squid.

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In 2014, about 1,000 pounds of squid were caught by Oregon-based commercial fishers. Last year saw a huge jump — the haul was more than 10 million pounds.

Josh Whaley, who has been fishing for squid since 2019, told OPB he started after encouragement from the market. He and his team fish for an Astoria company called Da Yang Seafood, which had been buying squid from other fishermen.

“We felt very comfortable that we would be able to sell them because the processors had a high demand for them. The fish buyers out there are very encouraged about squid because it’s a fairly low labor and fairly easy to process product on their end,” Whaley said.

A lot of Oregon fishermen had docked their boats in Newport by April 3 because of low seafood prices and uncertain markets during the coronavirus pandemic.

Docked boats in Newport pictured on June 3, 2020.

Cassandra Profita/OPB

Market squid, as they are called, span from British Columbia to Baja California, Mexico, according to Mary Hunsicker, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hunsicker told OPB that market squid are most abundant off the central coast of California, like other species of squid.

“They have rapid growth rates and short life spans. So, they live for less than a year, which allows them to adapt quickly to changing environmental conditions,” Hunsicker said.

Researchers have found that warming waters — from events like marine heat waves — have played a large role in the increasing numbers of market squid along the West Coast.

Based on NOAA analysis of squid populations off the West Coast, using survey data off the coast of northern California up through Washington, the agency found they became more abundant from 1998 to 2019.

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“We saw a really large shift northward in their distribution,” Hunsicker explained. Due to the warming water temperatures, she said “We will see a more sustained or persistent population of squid in Oregon and Washington.”

The Astoria-Megler bridge, designed by Conde McCullough, stretches 4.1 miles between Oregon and Washington. It has been featured in movies such as "The Kindergarten Cop," "Short Circuit" and "The Goonies."

File photo: The Astoria-Megler bridge stretches across the Columbia River.

Alan Sylvestre / OPB

More market squid means more fishing opportunity and prompted Whaley to upgrade equipment to adjust to Seine fishing, a method of net fishing used to capture species close to the surface of the ocean, like sardines and squid.

“The net is set in a circle and then you close it up from the bottom and pull the entire net in until you have product in the last little bit of the net that you have hanging over the side of the boat,” Whaley said.

From catch to cash

So, who is buying and eating the squid? Locally, the answer is on restaurant appetizer menus as calamari. There’s also a large hunger for squid internationally, Whaley explained.

While the boom of market squid has been something fishermen are capitalizing on, sustainability is a question for fishery managers.

“I think with squid, because they have such a short life span, and they’re described as the boom or bust populations, you know, the thought is that you could probably fish them pretty hard because they only live one year because they do have such high turnover rates,” Hunsicker said. “There are different ways to manage them, you could have seasonal closures, you can have catch limits… they could be fished pretty hard with some confidence that their populations can sustain it and we’ll be able to come back.”

With the growth of the squid fishery in Oregon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is now in the process of putting in more rules.

Whaley told OPB there is still much to learn about best practices for market squid fishing in Oregon, saying that more will be known about how the industry is going in five or so years.

Since the shift to greater market squid fishing is still very recent, Whaley told OPB the full commercial scope isn’t known yet. “We haven’t seen a lot of longevity to the fishery here yet, we still don’t have the history to make decisions on, and it crosses over with other seasons that we participate in,” Whaley said.

“The crab season typically runs from December to sometime in March. The shrimp season runs from April 1 to Oct. 31. Those are our bread and butter. That’s what our business model is based on… [market squid] is very much a supplemental fishery for us in between seasons until it proves otherwise.”

Rolie Hernandez contributed to this story.

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