Federal grant will help determine if a squid fishery can work in Southeast

Which came first, the magister squid fishery or the magister squid market?

A Juneau charter fishing operator was recently awarded a $230,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find out, and fishermen might soon have a chance to diversify in the face of declining fish stocks and high barriers to entry in other markets.

"It's the chicken and the egg. Do you start researching how to catch them or if there's a market?" said Richard Yamada, who has dedicated the past several years to learning more about magister squid, a species he and some biologists speculate is preying on juvenile king salmon and herring.

Yamada thinks the squid are so abundant that a low-volume, high-price commercial fishery could support Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen. He hopes the magister squid, which aren't yet a food commodity in North America, could be sold on the high-end sushi market everywhere from New York to San Francisco.

Yamada, who's been operating fishing charters for 40 years, has been looking for ways to reduce the impacts on his business as king salmon declines. About 15 years ago, while fishing for rockfish, he and his clients caught a magister squid. He's caught a hundred at a time while jigging for just a few hours.

He's since recruited a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and researchers at the University of Alaska to study the species that researchers think are moving further north as the oceans warm. He's also been granted a Fish and Game "commissioner's permit" that allows him to catch and market the squid.

Yamada said he's been turned down for grants that would research what a commercial fishery would look like largely because grantees worry there isn't a market. He aims to change that.

"This grant cycle, I went on the market side, to create a global market. (The squid is) unique. It's not sold commercially anywhere in North America and, in fact, in my research with the Japanese, it's not even caught or sold there. The only place I've found it is in Russia."

In an effort to create a market, he'll use the grant money to, in part, attend food expos in Boston and Japan to see how it matches up with other squid species.

He's already taken the squid to sushi chefs in California and Hawaii and said he's received favorable reports. The magister squid are tender, flavorful and don't have the iodine taste that the more common Humboldt squid contain, Yamada said. He also hired a San Francisco marketing company, which is aiming to brand the squid as "Alaska Ika." Ika is the Japanese word for squid.

"It's a brand name to provide some kind of exposure that this is coming from Alaska. I might be able to use this squid as a U.S.-sourced food product for the sushi market here instead of having everything imported from China and Japan."

But to get fresh squid to market, storing them will present a challenge. Yamada said he had to pump seawater from a depth of at least 30 feet to ensure the water is salty enough. Squid he stored in surface water, which contains more fresh water, quickly died. They would also need to be stored separately for a live market because they don't get along when grouped together.

"By the time we got to shore, three of them died, mostly because they ate each other," Yamada said. "We're developing techniques to keep them in a tube," Yamada said. "There's a lot of experimentation going on."

Yamada is also lobbying local chefs to use the product. The chef at his charter lodge cooked it as an entrée. "He cut up the tentacles and mixed them with shrimp and some binding agents, stuffed the body of the squid and then charred it on the grill and sliced it. It's excellent. We really liked that."

Juneau-based commercial gillnetter Luke Thorington said he first became interested in the squid in 2019, when he heard rumors that sport anglers were catching them in droves around Juneau.

"I started researching it, and there were tons of them in Russia, (where) they have a very well-established fishery," Thorington said. "They used to trawl from them. In some years they took more metric tons of squid out of Russia than they would take out of the California market squid fishery. That got me pretty excited."

He soon learned about Yamada and his efforts. Now they're talking about how to obtain gear that commercial boats out of Japan and South America use to jig for the squid. Thorington said the prospect of a new commercial fishery is exciting, especially in Alaska's limited-entry fishing industry that often requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter.

"I think it would be really cool to have something out there for people who want to get started and have a work ethic, that there is something they could go do without having to put a quarter-million into a commercial fishery just to get the ball rolling," he said. "Maybe that's where this will go. We'll see how this all plays out."

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Juneau area manager Scott Forbes said before a fishery could open, the department would have to conduct a stock assessment and create a management plan. Forbes has issued Yamada permits for catching and selling the squid commercially. He said he's intrigued by the species because they could potentially be a juvenile salmon predator.

Fish and Game coho researcher Leon Shaul a year ago said salmon declines coincided with adult herring declines that other biologists were tracking in inside waters. "It's pointing to a predator," Shaul said.

"Increased mortality of adult herring in inside waters across all age classes, even while their body condition factor remains high, is consistent with a predator," he said. "Across the board these inside stocks have dropped off. Two herring stocks that were still doing well were in Sitka and Craig/Klawock, which are both on the outer coast, not in (the magister squids') primary area."

Shaul said the warm waters associated with "the blob" - warming Pacific Ocean waters - could be a factor for an increased population of magister squid, which were already native to the region but more evident further south near Ketchikan.

Thorington said he's grateful that Yamada is tackling an issue that could have a long-term impact on Southeast fisheries.

"I'm really happy Richard was able to secure this grant and that there's government agencies that are actually paying attention to this and not going with the status quo," he said. "We have to try to adapt to what's coming."


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