The Circling Net — Squid are on the menu

Deckhands Ty Rocheleau and Codey Lawson prepare the Sea Diamond for squid fishing. (Photo by Bret Yager)

NEWPORT — The squid boats have rolled into town.

Lured from far coordinates like Sitka to the north and Ventura to the south, the seiners are unfurling their nets on palm-length market squid off the Alsea River, taking advantage of massive schools that have showed up for reasons science doesn’t yet understand.

The season started in just the past week, and fisheries biologists don’t yet have landings data. But indicators point to a brisk year.

“If you look at the effort and infrastructure here in terms of boats, buyers and logistics, it’s on a scale with 2018,”  said Troy Buell, state fishery management program leader.

Squiders hauled 7 million pounds into Newport in 2018, shattering records. In 2016, the landings stood at 2.7 million pounds. The iridescent creatures, a staple of the calamari market, don’t frequently show up in great masses.  Prior to 2016 — the first year that out-of-town boats really converged on Newport — the squid appeared in the mid-1980s and again in the ‘90s, but annual landings back then never broke 500,000 pounds, said Buell.

Even last year’s haul is a mere few percent of the landings in California, where the majority of market squid fishing takes place.

Using a long, lightweight net attached to a skiff, fishermen circle the schools, hoping to trap them in a loop. The boats haul the set to the rail, condensing the squid into a mass and using giant pumps to shoot the product into the hold. It’s worth 50 cents a pound to the boats.

The Sea Diamond, home-ported out of Sitka, waited in Newport last week while deckhands Codey Lawson and Ty Rocheleau got the deck ready to fish. Four boats that fish for the same company, Silver Bay Seafoods, landed a total of 56 tons last Thursday.

The squid are trucked to processing in Watsonville, said Rick Rocheleau, captain of the 70-foot seiner capable of packing 78 tons.

The squid are near shore this time of year depositing eggs.

“We’d be out there right now but I’m waiting for a crewman,” Rocheleau said.

At the International Terminal, two big vacuum pumps are set at the edge of the pier to unload the boats and a lineup of trucks and refrigerated trailers sit waiting to take the squid to California for processing. The season has been hampered by weather, but if last year is any indication, somewhere between 10 to 20 seiners will be working the grounds in a fishery that could be going for the next couple of months, bringing a buzz to a port forced into idle as shrimp fishermen haggle price with processors.

There is no set quota for squid in Oregon, but there is a harvest guideline of 4.5 million pounds. Once that quota is reached, a meeting is held and regulators hear from the public.

Buell anticipated a meeting will be held sometime in the coming weeks.

At last year’s meeting, “we heard from people about what’s going on out on the grounds,” Buell said. “Concerns were mostly about bycatch and interaction with other gear.”

The squid are short-lived; they last less than a year and can reproduce in great masses. There is speculation that warmer water brings them around, but there is no settled science to explain why they chose Newport waters one year over another.

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