Marine mystery: Hundreds of huge squid wash ashore

After mostly being spotted offshore for the several weeks, a large number of giant squid began washing ashore on Peninsula beacheslast week, including this specimen which measured about three feet in length, not counting its tentacles.

Unusual warm current may have brought 'devil fish' up from Mexico

LONG BEACH - For the past month something strange has been washing up on the Peninsula's beaches - giant squid.

"It's a mystery," said Joel Hollander, a fish and invertebrate biologist with the Seattle Aquarium.

Although the squid have not been officially identified yet, Hollander suspects they are Dosidicus gigas, the jumbo flying squid, also called the Humboldt squid after the ocean current off the coast of Mexico and southern California where they are usually found. This year has been unprecedented as they have been found from the Oregon coast to as far north as Sitka, Alaska.

Hollander thinks it might have something to do with a mild El Nino ocean effect bringing warmer water, and the squid, farther north than usual. Even so, the last El Nino event in 1997 only brought the squid as far north as Oregon, and not in these numbers.

"It's pretty crazy," said Hollander. "It's kind of an anomaly."

He thinks they may be dying when they get caught in the colder currents, or they might be spawning out and dying, much like salmon.

The squid can reach six feet in length and weigh 100 pounds, although none that large have been found this far north. Not much is known of the elusive creatures' life cycle, but they have the ability to change color, chameleon-like, at will. Unlike chameleons, though, the color changes can be rapid and isolated, forming polka dots, stripes or rainbow hues. Scientists believe the squid use the color changes for camouflage or communication. They usually live at ocean depths of 660 to 2,300 feet.

They belong to a class of animals called cephalopod, which means "head-foot." One look at a member of the cephalopod class, which includes octopus and cuttlefish, is enough to explain the name. They are considered to be the most intelligent of invertebrates, animals lacking a backbone, and are known escape artists. Some captive octopi have been taught to do simple tricks on command and navigate mazes. They can also travel in bursts of 20 miles an hour, and change direction on a dime.

The Humboldt squid have a fierce reputation. In Mexico, where they are fished commercially, the squid are called "diablo" or devil fish. Stories circulate about luckless fisherman who are pulled overboard by the squid, dragged below the waves, and torn to bits before help can arrive. The squids' usual diet, however, is other cephalopods, fish and each other. They use their sucker-lined tentacles to pull prey to their beak-like mouth. Each sucker has a tooth-like hook at its center, which can also tear flesh from its prey.

According to Greg Bargmann with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the squid were first reported at the end of August about 30 miles out by tuna fishermen. In September, fishermen were catching them off the docks of the Westport Marina. Then over the weekend hundreds washed up on the Peninsula beaches. Bargmann estimates there were a couple hundred squid per mile. Most of the squid are in the 10 to 15 pound range and a couple feet in length. They have collected several samples for analysis.

"I think it's going to be a pretty rare event," he said. "I hope people will get out there and check them out. It's causing quite a little scientific stir."

Bargmann said he has been asked if the squid are likely to affect the salmon. The answer is no. Not only because the squid swim deeper than the salmon, but also because he thinks the squid will quickly die off once the warm water current breaks up.

"It's probably a short-lived phenomena," he said.

He said he is also asked if the squid are good to eat. Yes. They are fished commercially further south and are considered a delicacy in Japan.

In fact, according to Morris Barker, state marine resource manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, emergency regulations have been issued so people can take advantage of this rare event.

"We didn't expect this at all," he said.

A shell fishing license or combo license now allows fisherman to take 10 pounds of squid or one squid per day, whichever is more.

"I haven't heard anyone complain about the flavor," he said, although he admits he has not had a chance to try one for himself.

He does not recommend people eat any of the squid that have washed up dead on the beaches, which he compares to eating roadkill.

But otherwise, as Barker said, "bon appetit."

To report additional sightings of giant squid, call Greg Bergmann at (360) 902-2825.

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