Aboard a Squid Fishing Boat: Learning Tough Lessons About Our Food Sources
A view from the bottom of the commodity chain reveals the comedy, and tragedy, of human exploits in nature
As I stumble from my bunk, I come eye to toe with a smelly, sock-coated foot. Shaking sleepily, I stagger out to conjure up grimy, cheap coffee, which I drink with tasteless cereal and a waxy apple. As the boat engine rumbles to life, I leap out on deck to coil anchoring lines. The fog is dense, and our brief commute to open water teems with life. The marina seals resemble neighborhood dogs, barking and flopping lazily atop rust crusted buoys. Sea otters can be spotted floating on their backs, rubbing their bellies. This serenity is shattered by a shout from the captain, and we jump into our uniforms, though to call it a “uniform” is generous. We wear orange foul-weather gear over loose sweats, and from a distance, we may well be mistaken for traffic cones with arms.
Photo by Marcel Holyoak
If you’re still wondering to which curious circus I’ve come for employment, look no further than the Monterey Harbor, roughly 100 miles south from San Francisco. I’m on a commercial squid fishing boat, one of some 25 purse seiners stationed in the area. ‘Seiners’ are large vessels that use a small skiff clipped to the aft, which draws a net around schooling fish. Once the net surrounds a school, one heavy side sinks and another floats, forming a submersible wall. A thick line is pulled along the bottom to “purse up,” creating an inescapable bowl that holds squid and whichever hapless creatures swim too near.
As the hydraulic system winches the massive, dripping net onboard, crabs and sponges shower onto my head. For anyone who connotes jellyfish with ethereal beauty, I submit that squid fishing will quickly change your mind. Jellyfish are the new bane of my existence, and their blooms fill California’s coastal waters. Not a day goes by when I am not smacked in the face with a dripping, gelatinous wad. Jelly stingers permeate the surrounding water, so when this firewater runs down your shirtfront, your nerves resoundly kick you in the brain. Fortified as you may be against the water with thick waterproof clothing, the slightest opening in the jacket sends even the most stoic fisherman into a dark place, filled with obscenities and mutterings.
We five crewmen would work from early morning late into the night. On a boat time ceases to be conceived in hours. Occasionally, we would spend an entire afternoon untying an enraging two-ton knot in the net. On a good day, we would deliver around one hundred tons of squid to the dock, though such bounty came rarely. The average Pacific market squid weighs roughly 0.088 lbs, meaning a ton of squid meat would need about 22,727 squids. A veritable squid genocide.
When there is squid to be had, a pump is lowered into the net. The pump is a seven hundred pound metal object, which resembles the bottom portion of a space shuttle. The hydraulic winch lifts the pump in the air, and on turbulent, rolling waters, we crew scramble around to guide it into the net. On slippery decks, and hanging from a perilously thin-looking line, the pump swings with the boat’s motion. If it fell on you, this mammoth wrecking ball-like object could easily kill you. To picture this precarious dance, imagine four orange weasels guiding a bowling ball around in a slippery bumper car.
The squid are sucked up the pump, down a chute, and into a massive hold under the deck. This spectacle simultaneously vies for all the comedy and tragedy in human escapades in nature. Sliding down, squid blast ink in every direction, a sad attempt to defend against strange enemies. Repeatedly, I pause at these moments, and in sets a familiar sadness.
Cephalopods have large eyes, a characteristic often associated with high brain development, and yet no timescale of evolution could have prepared them for human ingenuity. Whatever their final desperate thoughts, one detects unmistakable fear and comprehension in their eyes. And they are so many individuals. Rays, octopi, small fish, and other ‘’bycatch’’ bespeckle the squid streaming down the chute, and we scramble to toss them back into the sea. These are the lucky ones, the few.
My Alaskan coworker comments cheerily as we work, “You can eat those, but not those. And those there are good with garlic and butter…”
Upon reaching the shore, a highly unglamorous task awaits in the hold — unloading our catch. The hold is an enormous, room-sized tank, directly under the center deck. Only after the dockworkers have vacuumed out roughly half the squid can one crawl inside. We don puffy, brown waterproof overalls and carry green, plastic shovels. People often dream of swimming in a pool filled with stuff such as beer or ice cream; I have crawled through the depths of the nightmarish opposite: cold, gelatinous squid. With the aid of a high-powered hose and our toy plastic shovels, we scrape, and shove the remaining squid into the vacuum tube. Most are already dead at this point.
I am an environmentalist to the core, and a recent vegetarian. Though I’d never have admitted it on the boat, I feel guilty about severing earthworms when digging. While I cannot deny the thrill of fishing and my love for the ocean, I often have a hard time explaining why I am here.
Largely, I wanted to understand this ancient profession in the modern age. Images from Melville and Cook formerly danced in my mind, but the romanticism I had sought is long gone. Sailors of yore would have been amazed by the modern amenities on board, including a flat-screen TV and microwave —,more city condo than proper ship. It was a disappointment that I’d never got to climb onto rigging, though I did climb the mast to change a light bulb. Nevertheless, I wanted to get closer to the bottom rung of our commodity chain, to understand what fishing really meant.
Six months on the boat changed me. Regardless of one’s initial sentiments, it is hard to continue this work without becoming desensitized. In three months, I went from resident bunny-hugger to hardened squid slayer. It was a particularly startling moment when I referred to the squid as money, a common phrase I’d noticed being used early on and resolved never to adopt.
Whatever opinion people may hold about them, these fishermen hold no illusions about their work: it pays the bills. Not many modern jobs even approach the grueling, demanding, and stressful nature of commercial fishing. Yet here, I witnessed perhaps the best work ethic I’ve ever encountered. Even after getting obliterated at the local dive on our one night off each week, we would all be back at work early in the morning.
Good or bad, for better or worse, in the thick of this grungy boat’s dealings, I saw how far most people have moved from the source of their food.
To consumers, squid will only ever be calamari, the same way cows are safely packaged in our minds as burger. After my time on the boat, I could never bring myself to eat squid, nor forget how many I’ve helped catch. If anyone has the opportunity to spend time on a fishing boat, I’d whole-heartedly recommend the experience. Perhaps then more of us would reassess our relationship with the sea life we call food.