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A squishy romance

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Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2005 12:00 am

The annual spawning of billions of squid off Malibu's coast draws the regular fleet of ships, bright lights and all, to catch them.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Romance is in the air this month-or to be technical, in the water-as billions of squid are rendezvousing off the Malibu coast in their annual rite of courtship and spawning.

And hovering right above them, bright lights and nets at the ready, is a fleet of fishing ships. The ships' crews are anxious to net a portion of the 118 tons of squid that can legally be harvested each year in California waters.

The squid fleet has made its appearance at Malibu's western end, and will likely move east around Point Dume as the harvest progresses this month.

The squid boats' bright lights off the coast of Malibu are a regular December occurrence. Some beach residents have grumbled about the all-night illumination, which draws spawning colonies of squid to the surface, where they are surrounded by a net that is then gathered at the bottom, and hauled onto the decks.

And the boat captains say they have listened.

"Our industry is always looking for ways to better shield the lights," said Diane Pleschener-Steele, executive director of the California Wet Fish Producers Association. Bright lights can attract night-flying seabirds called murrelets, and can bother some people, so some boatowners are testing submerged lights, she said.

In the past 20 years, squid have rocketed to the top of the pecking order in California as the coast's most valuable fishing harvest.

The current fleet is generally operated by family descendants of the Portuguese, Italian and Greek fishermen who have harvested sardines, mackerel and tuna along the coast over generations. The boats are based at Monterey, Port San Luis, Port Hueneme, San Pedro and San Diego, said Dale Sweetnam, the Department of Fish and Game's senior fisheries biologist, in La Jolla.

Although squid have been a part of the commercial catch since statehood, it was only in the last two decades that fresh-frozen squid took off.

"Someone figured out there is a huge market in China and Japan," Pleschener-Steele said. Domestic calamari consumption has skyrocketed as well, but about 80 percent of the harvest is bound for the Orient.

Fishing boats from as far away as Puget Sound came to the Southern California coast to harvest squid in the 1990s, causing prices to deflate and biologists to wonder if the stock was being overfished. That prompted the California Department of Fish and Game to clamp down on the number of boats permitted to harvest squid, Sweetnam said.

For the past several years, the state has capped the maximum annual harvest at 118 tons, and frozen the number of boat permits issued to 78. Individual catches are spot-checked to see if the female squid are still fertile, and if a large percentage is, Sweetnam said the state will close the fishing area to give the squid a chance to procreate.

"The squid only live about six months, and they die within a few days of spawning," Sweetnam said. "There are historic areas where the squid spawn every year, usually off deep undersea canyons or other areas where there's access to deep water."

The beaches at Paradise Cove, Zuma and near Point Mugu fit that bill, he said.

"The light boat sets up shop, and the purse seiner wraps the area with its net," he said.

Most larger fish escape as a winch gathers the net together at the bottom, Sweetnam said, and escaping the net is no problem at all for any dolphins, seal lions or other marine mammal that might be in the area dining on squid.

"The sea lions go in and out of the nets on a regular basis," he said.

State fisheries officials feel the squid population is stable, although it varies greatly from year to year depending on water temperature.

"We're trying to keep a good tab on the fishery," Sweetnam said, "to ensure there isn't any local depletion in any area.

"That, plus we give the squid two days a week off," he said.

Fishing is banned on weekends to allow the squid a chance to breed unharassed.

The squid boats last week were clustered off the beach at the Ventura County line, just a few hundred yards offshore from the motorbikers munching on fried calamari at Neptune's Net.

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