Live Fast, Die Young, Shift North – Longfin Squid (Cool Fish, Hot Water Part II)

This is Part II in our “Cool Fish, Hot Water” series. I know what you’re thinking, squid aren’t fish, but we weren’t sure we had enough fodder for a “Cool Cephalopod, Hot Water” series, so may the squid forgive us, but today they are fish. -Ed.

Things are heating up in New England’s ocean. Last month Leah Fine posted an outstanding piece on a warming trend in the Gulf of Maine, and the new faces we are starting to see off our coasts as a result. I can make no better introduction to the topic than Leah has already done, so I’m just going to dive right in and talk about another of the newcomers we’ve recently welcomed. Or, more correctly, an occasional visitor that seems to be making itself at home lately.

Longfin squid are no strangers to Atlantic waters, but they usually congregate from southern Georges Bank down to Cape Hatteras. Migrating seasonally, longfin squid spend the colder months offshore along the edge of the continental shelf, and come inshore in the spring as the water warms up, starting in the southern end of their range and proceeding north along the coast to Cape Cod.

But, according to CLF’s Peter Shelley, “Squid have been everywhere on the north shore of Massachusetts these past two summers. People were camped out on Marblehead’s public docks all night, it seemed, removing buckets and buckets of squid every day. Even I could catch them… and they were delicious.”

They are pretty tasty – if you enjoy calamari you’ve probably eaten them yourself. But Peter was surprised to see so many of them lately. “I have never seen them in such swarms before in all my years on the waters here,” he said recently. Peter’s location on the north shore of Massachusetts puts him in a front row seat for observing a range extension of commercially viable concentrations of longfin squid.

He’s not the only one who’s noticing the change. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has listed longfin squid as an “emerging fishery” of Mid-Atlantic “stocks on the move.” According to their recent report on the topic, “centers of population for butterfish, longfin squid, summer flounder, and black sea bass have been steadily moving north since the 1990s.” They predict that the changes we are seeing in our ocean right now will have “significant effects on fisheries worldwide.” One species moving around a little bit may not seem like a big deal, but when you put that species in its ecosystem context, you can understand why scientists, fishermen, and regulators are getting worried.

Longfin squid have fleeting lives – their entire population is estimated to turn over very six months – but they are an important prey species for some of our commercial and recreational fishing favorites, like striped bass, bluefish, cod, haddock, and flounder. In turn, they rely on a diverse buffet themselves for food. When small they eat plankton, and graduate to crustaceans and small fish like mackerel, herring, and anchovies as they get bigger (is anyone else getting hungry?). They have also been known to eat each other, the little cannibals. In short — they are an important strand of the complex web of life in our ocean.

Nature changes and animals move around all the time, so any one species turning up in an unusual place or in unusual numbers doesn’t necessarily mean a big shift is happening, but the squid are just one of so many species on the go right now, that it’s hard not to worry things are really changing fast in our ocean. It will be challenging to keep up with the changes from commercial, regulatory, and conservation standpoints – but I think we’d all better give it our best shot. Keep checking back over the next few weeks and we’ll update you on more of our newest arrivals in New England’s ocean.

Photo credit: Josh Cummings

Announcing Our September Photo Contest Winner!

Congratulations to J.R. Cummings, who captured this month’s winning photo, “Squid Pair Attaching Egg Case to Cluster”, off the coast of Rockport, MA. We love the way this photo captures a critical moment in the life cycle of these animals against a striking black background.

Longfin squid are common in New England inshore waters and an important species for both fishermen and scientists. The squid have a short lifespan and the population turns over completely in six to eight months, so the fishery can handle relatively strong fishing pressure. Regulators have divided the squid quota across three seasons so the fishery can operate year-round.

Longfin squid also serve as a perfect test species for scientists studying the nervous system. Their chromatophores, the color-producing cells that allow them to actively camouflage themselves like ocean chameleons, also have an interesting response when the squid’s skin is stimulated by music—check out this video of the cells “dancing”:

For another beautiful photo and more information about longfin squid, see this post.

Also check out our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll be posting the honorable mentions from the September photo contest over the next few days.

If you have pictures to share, there are still a few days left in our October contest!

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

Each month’s winner will receive a copy of Brian Skerry’s beautiful book, Ocean Soul. 

We look forward to seeing your photos!

Longfin Squid: A Meditation in Green

Why is the water in this beautiful image so green? In short, New England is blessed with rich, productive oceans.

The green in the water is from the chlorophyll found inside tiny phytoplankton that float around and harvest sunlight, turning it into the food that anchors our web of life. All other life in the sea depends on these little energy powerhouses.

The fertile, green waters of the North Atlantic are home to many wonders. The longfin squid featured in this photo are some of my favorites. The squid spend their short lives (less than a year) in coastal waters from Canada to Venezuela. Racecar sleek and gorgeous, the squid use chromatophores in their skin to flash and strobe different colors to suit their mood. Longfin squid school together to reproduce, which they can do at any time of year. Males compete fiercely to breed, and can flash red to warn other males away when they are mating.

Look carefully at the picture, and you can see the squid’s surreal, giant eyes. Squid’s eyes are very similar to our own. Excellent vision, combined with lightning speed (squid are the fastest invertebrate swimmers), make them fantastic hunters. Longfins jet through the water, chasing herring, menhaden, mackerel, and many other fish. They are aggressive predators, and will eat fish almost as big as they are (around a foot long), and will even eat each other. Longfin squid are, in turn, important food for larger fish and marine mammals. These squid are also commercially fished, and odds are good that if you enjoy calamari, you have eaten them.

Look at this sublimely colored image one more time, and think about all the different reasons that green matters to you. From lush, emerald rainforests, to sweeping tallgrass prairies, to the murky green depths of our productive coastal sea, green is the color that feeds us, body and soul.