WASHINGTON – They definitely aren’t your garden-variety calamari. The jumbo squid now lurking off the Pacific Northwest coast could threaten salmon runs and signal yet another change in the oceans brought on by global warming.
The squid, which can reach 7 feet long and weigh up to 110 pounds, are aggressive. They’re thought to hunt in packs and can move at speeds up to 15 mph. In Mexico, they are known as diablos rojos, or red devils. There have been reports that they’ll attack divers when threatened.
No one knows why they started appearing in increasing numbers off Washington state and Oregon or how many there are.
But scientists and commercial fishermen have found them in their nets every year since 2004. One ship trawling for Pacific hake captured an estimated 50 tons of the squid in one net haul. Though they usually prefer deep water, between 1,000 and 1,500 squid washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in southwest Washington in the fall of 2004.
“This is a new phenomenon,” said Jason Phillips, a faculty research assistant at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. A briefing paper from the science center suggested the jumbo squid may already be well-established in the Pacific Northwest.
Canadian fisheries officials said the jumbo squid were first seen in Northwest waters in the early 1950s. But that was a rare event back then.
“It’s not rare anymore,” said Ken Cooke, head of applied technology for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Nanaimo, B.C. “They were always thought to be a transient visitor. Now it appears they are resident.”
Also known as Humboldt squid, they’ve typically been found off the coast of Mexico, Central America and Peru. Near the town of Santa Rosalia, Mexico, several years ago, an estimated 10 million squid were living in a 25-square-mile area.
In the late 1990s, they appeared in increasing numbers off the central California coast around Monterey Bay. By 2005, jumbo squid were found as far north as Sitka, Alaska.
“There is no question they have moved north and in pretty large numbers off Washington state and Oregon,” said John Field, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Santa Cruz, Calif.
At the same time the jumbo squid were moving north, they were also moving south along the South American coast. Chilean fishermen used to catch none. Now, they are catching 200,000 tons a year, mostly for export to Asia, Field said.
“The fact this is happening in both hemispheres could be a sign it is tied in with global warming,” Field said. “We are trying to piece this all together.”
A paper from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans concluded that the large number of jumbo squid now found between Oregon and Alaska indicates a profound change in coastal ecosystems.
Others suggest the squid have been able to expand their range because of overfishing of the species’ natural predators, including tuna, sharks and swordfish. But at the same time, the population of another of the squid’s predators, sperm whales, has roughly doubled off the West Coast.
THEY’RE ADAPTING TO CHANGE
The mystery grew more complicated when scientists started talking about a huge bubble of low-oxygen water found deep off the west coasts of North and South America that seems to be expanding, perhaps because of increasing ocean temperatures. Jumbo squid thrive in that low-oxygen zone.
Generally warmer ocean temperatures along the Northwest coast could also be a factor, though jumbo squid can live in colder waters, too.
“They are the poster child in how to succeed in a changing world,” said William Gilly, a Stanford University biology professor.
Jumbo squid are voracious predators known to dine on krill, lantern fish, shrimp, sardines, rockfish and other squid. They are cannibalistic.
Sharp, barbed suckers on their tentacles snare their quarry and drag it to their mouths, where it’s torn to shreds by a baseball-sized beak.
“They are amazing predators,” Cooke said. “They will eat anything and continuously. They don’t have an off-on switch.”
Cooke said jumbo squid can grow up to an inch or so a day, and their life span is no more than two years.
The squid’s favorite food could be Pacific hake, a whitefish often used in fish sticks. The Pacific hake fishery is the biggest on the West Coast, and its populations have been declining as the squids’ range has grown.
“Major fisheries could be affected,” said Louis Zeidberg, a Stanford University researcher. “They can interrupt the normal migration pattern of hake.”
‘A WALL OF TENTACLES’
As for salmon, scientists aren’t sure what impact jumbo squid have had or may have on the dwindling salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest. Zeidberg said there’s anecdotal evidence the squid have been eating salmon. Fields said he has never found remains of salmon in the stomachs of the 500-plus squid he has dissected.
“We don’t know if they are a threat to salmon, but it is certainly plausible,” Gilly said.
The squid could be eating the juvenile salmon as they first enter the ocean. But the juveniles stick close to shore, while the squid prefer the deeper waters off the continental shelf 15 to 50 miles off the coast. Though the squid have been filmed eating hake, most salmon are bigger and can swim faster.
Another theory is that as the squid are eating the smaller fish, also the prey seals and sea lions, the marine mammals have switched to salmon.
But the most-discussed theory focuses on the scary threat the squid present as salmon school up in the ocean and head back to the rivers and streams to spawn.
“They could face a wall of tentacles,” Zeidberg said.
Even if the squid capture only a handful of salmon, that could be enough to disrupt the run as the fish scatter.
“It could be a chain reaction,” Gilly said. “Taking out one salmon could disturb a million salmon.”
While much of the research has focused on the squid populations off the California coast, Cooke said, scientists are hoping to ramp up studies further north.
“We don’t have an understanding of this animal at all,” he said.
One note: As big as a jumbo squid can get, they are nothing compared to the giant and colossal squids that haunt childhood memories of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Captain Nemo. Though little is known about those squid, they can reach nearly 50 feet in length, and perhaps even bigger.
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008