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Stronger squid landings spur hope for West Coast US ‘wetfish’ sector

November 27, 2017

By Jason Smith | Undercurrent News

After recent years during which the El Nino effect scattered California’s squid biomass leaving harvesters struggling, initial start of season landings augur for brighter days ahead for the sector.

According to landing records from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the commercial squid fishery harvested 3,427 metric tons of squid in October, compared to 1,268t, a year prior. 

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” Diane Pleschner-Steele, the executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, told Undercurrent News.

“It’s not booming yet, but it’s a lot more encouraging than it was last year,” she said.

The processors that her group represents are historically known as “wetfish” producers because their target pelagic species —  sardine, anchovy and mackerel — were canned while still wet. In recent years California market squid, Loligo opalescens, has become the wetfish industry mainstay as pelagic catches waned, often due to fishing restrictions. The warmer waters brought by El Nino scattered squid for colder waters and several wetfish processors struggled, the end result being a wave of buyouts and closures

But with the onset of colder La Nina temperatures reaching southern California waters, the squid are back.

“Most of last year and early this year, we were not quite sure which way it was going to go,” Pleschner-Steele said. 

A source at a wetfish processor told Undercurrent that years of “inconsistency” with the state squid fishery may have ended.

Prior to the recent El Nino, there were “four or five” years of good landings.

“To go back 10, 15 or 20 years, the fishery started in southern California in November and ended in February,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “Most of last year and early this year we were not quite sure which way it was going to go.”

Statistics aren’t yet available for November, but the source added that anecdotal evidence from fishers is positive.

“Now they’re not filling up their boats but they are catching squid,” he said.

Prices

Ex-vessel prices, two sources told Undercurrent, are currently at $1,000/t for California loligo, up from around $650/t in the 2015 season, though both sources acknowledged that if landings increase that price may dip.

“Nobody wants to be caught buying $1,000/t for squid if the bottom is going to drop out of the fishery next week,” the wetfish processing source said.

One factor in fishers’ favor is that week squid harvests, as well as the mixed picture for squid harvests globally. In South America, abundant catches during the latest fishing season are depressing Falkland Islands' loligo squid prices even as Argentine illex squid stocks dwindle. Meanwhile, giant squid catch volumes in Chile and Peru have collapsed, industry sources told Undercurrent.

CUrtis 'Arne' Arnesen - Commercial Banking Team Leader
Curtis 'Arne' Arnesen - Commercial Banking Team Leader

According to Curtis Arnesen of Bellingham, Washington-headquartered Peoples Bank, which provides financing to squid fishers, years of low California harvests have depleted freezer inventories, which supports stable price levels.

“It’s been a tough couple of years. We haven’t initiated many squid loans in the last couple of months but we’ve stuck with the guys," the banker said. "We’re very hopeful that this new trend, this trend of October and November is the start of something good.”

The picture for sardines and anchovy is still poor, he said, but squid fishing can still be a money-maker.

"Of those pelagics, squid is the topic we’re laser focused on because like everyone, we’re as hopeful as anyone that these fishermen that we’ve been hanging in there with will start making money again hand over fist like they did in 2009 to 2014. You had a 132,000t fishery in there," he said. Read more...