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Squid Studies: Scientists Seeking and Savoring Squid

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: William Gilly, a professor of biology at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, embarked on new expedition this month to study jumbo squid in the Gulf of California on the National Science Foundation–funded research vessel New Horizon. This is his second blog post about the trip.


squid studies gillySEA OF CORTEZ— As we moved up the Gulf towards Guaymas, we continued to prepare our equipment. Actually, this will be a never-ending focus for the next two weeks. A research cruise in most cases is a creation in progress, and ‘equipment’ in our case ranges from Brad Seibel’s industrial-scale plumbing system for keeping big squid alive during experiments to our collection of fishing gear to catch squid. Everything will need constant, meticulous attention.

squid studies gilly mapWe arrived in Guaymas mid-afternoon and collected the rest of our party by 7 pm and immediately headed out to deep water about 10 miles offshore for our first exploratory squid jigging session. We arrived around 10:00 pm at the chosen site where a finger-like canyon poked back toward Guaymas. We immediately began to catch squid, and this had a predictable effect. We believe that catching a squid automatically triggers joyful exuberance. We have seen this phenomenon hundreds of times over the last decade. If there is photo of someone frowning while holding up a squid for the camera, we would like to see it. We doubt such an image exits.

squid studies gillyWithin an hour or so we collected our target sample of 20 to 30 squid. They were lined up sequentially on deck, measured, weighed, sexed and assessed for stage of maturity. This is information is simple but vital for two main reasons.

First, it is necessary to confirm the size of animals being sampled by the scientific sonar system on board that is being used by the Oregon State group. Acoustic data collected shows the depth where the squid and their prey are, and it can also be used to calculate numbers of squid or biomass – but only if you know how large the squid are that are being sampled acoustically. This is standard fare for acoustic assessment of fin-fish fisheries around the world, but use of such methods with squid is much less widespread. Kelly Benoit-Bird’s team from Oregon State is doing pioneering work in this area, and her insights and creativity were recognized with a MacArthur award in 2010.

squid studies gillySecond, knowledge of size and maturity is essential to understand how the squid grow and change under normal conditions, and how they respond to environmental influences, particularly El Niño in our case. To this end, we also collected statoliths and stomachs from our specimens. Examination of the stomach content reveals what a squid was eating before its capture. Statoliths are small calcareous structures in the head that act as acceleration detectors. They are involved in balance control and are analogous to otoliths in a fish (or to our inner ear system).  Careful sectioning of a statolith and polishing the slice reveals growth-rings like those in tree stump. These rings are deposited on a daily basis in the few species of squid that have been checked, but what each ring means in the case of a jumbo squid is not known. We hope to figure this out on our trip.

squid studies gillySmall size and young age at full maturity was the big surprise of last year’s cruise, and this phenomenon was again observed on this first night’s catch. All of the squid were between 30-40 cm mantle (body) length and nearly all were mature. This is roughly half the length of a mature squid from this area in a ‘normal’ year before the 2009-2010 El Niño. A difference in body length of this amount translates into a difference in  body weight of at least ten-fold – so these are indeed small squid. Imagine a human reaching puberty at a body weight of 10-15 pounds, and you have a good idea of how extraordinary this phenomenon in jumbo squid really is.


The following day was spent carrying out acoustic transects south of San Pedro Nolasco, a decent-sized island west of Guaymas.  It is still hot and humid, and most of the day was inside the air-conditioned ship assembling equipment. Our group has made a lot of improvements over last year, but once-again we did not have time to set everything up at home and test it before the cruise. So our lab for carrying out behavioral experiments on living squid remains a work in progress.

squid studies gilly oscarOne procedure we did not carry out in 2010 was culinary. In retrospect, it is simply not clear why we did not eat any squid whatsoever, but this year is shaping up differently. We are blessed by two fine chefs who love calamari. Our chief steward, Harrold Gomes, grew up in New Haven, CT, but now lives in Seattle. He normally works on a commercial fishing vessel in Alaska and is trying his hand on the New Horizon as a temporary replacement. After a career in the restaurant industry, he went to sea with a commercial fishing vessel in Alaska. He’s thought for some time about working on a ship that was less intense and located in a more pleasurable environment and may have found a new home with research vessels in the Sea of Cortez. Steward Oscar Buan was born in the Philippines and came to the US at age 54 after early retirement at the former U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay. He also worked on Alaskan fishing vessels and in the Merchant Marine before coming out of his second retirement to join the UNOLS fleet of research vessels operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

squid studies gilly haroldSo today was the first time we were served squid – not one, but two choices for lunch. Calamaris Kilawin is a Phillipine-style ceviche built on a foundation of fresh ginger. It looks like conventional ceviche made with lime, but the taste is a pleasant surprise. I was unfamiliar with this style, and it is always illuminating to discover a whole new aspect of an old love.  A similar preparation with fresh fish would undoubtedly be superb. Try it.

Our main entry was crispy Lemon-Pepper Calamares, a more familiar preparation of deep-fried squid. The texture and flavor of the small strips were perfect. The recipe below seems deceptively simple, and surely the secret of perfect deep-frying is more in observation and experience than in a few easily written words. But having had many less-than-perfect attempts at frying squid at home, I look forward to practicing with this guide.

More recipes for cooking with Humboldt squid (or any squid) will follow in the days to come, and we start with these. Others will be remembered or invented on the way. Of course, in order to serve squid at home, you will want to know the basics squid anatomy and how to clean them. All will be revealed in good time.



squid studies gilly calamariCalamaris Kilawin—Oscar P. Buan


This is a Philippine version of the more typical Mexican-style squid ceviche. The ginger flavor and scaled-back lime makes for an unexpected taste of an old favorite.

Steam or poach pieces of cleaned mantle until tender, about 15 minutes. You should be able to cut easily and shred bits with your fingers.

Add diced fresh ginger, cilantro, jalapeno, onion and celery as desired.

Add a small amount of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and mix. The mixture should not have a lot of fluid.

Add a small amount of Tabasco and/or soy sauce for modified flavors if desired.

Stir the mixture to mix and either serve immediately or chill in the refrigerator.



squid studies gilly calamariLemon-Pepper Calamares—Harrold Gomes


Fried calamari is universally enjoyed by people around the world. This is a simple recipe that will produce a fine product with a tasty, light coating. <<Photo of lemon-pepper calamares>>

1 lb of cleaned mantle strips cut into final size, about 3 inches long, 3/8 inch across.

1 cup flour

0.5 – 0.75 Tbls lemon pepper

0.5 Tbls granulated garlic

0.5 Tbls seasoning salt

Buttermilk

Soak small pieces of squid in buttermilk for 15 min at room temperature.

Dredge in flour mixture.

Deep fry for 3 minutes until golden brown.


Images:

Brad Seibel’s (Univ. Rhode Island) big-squid setup: Ian Wilson (Colorado State University)

Graduate student Hannah Rosen (Stanford) and squid-fishing gear: Ian Wilson (Colorado State)

Undergraduate Ian Wilson (Colorado State University) with squid: Ian Wilson (Colorado State)

Unai Markaida (Colegio Frontera Sur, Campeche) determining maturity of sampled squid while Neil and Tanya (Oregon State University keep records: Ian Wilson (Colorado State University)

Sectioned statolith courtesy of Dr. Henk-Jan Hoving, MBARI

Map from Google Earth, adapted by W. Gilly

Harrold Gomes and Oscar Buan: Ian Wilson (Colorado State University)

Calamares Kilawin and Lemmon-Pepper Calamares: Ian Wilson (Colorado State University)





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  1. 1. TobyNSaunders 6:11 pm 06/18/2011

    What kind of reception would the article get if it showed these scientists savoring children who were stuck in a child-like state of development such that they were as conscious as squid, like, toddlers? The only difference after all is appearance & other superficial factors: the squid & kids process the same amount of information and have comparable awareness & experience of pain, so why would the one with humans get worse reception?

    -Would the argument for holding children, stuck in a state of childhood, underwater for the sake of science and the sake of food be any different than the argument for holding squid out of water for science & food? It would have the exact same reasoning, but because of ignorance and the value placed on superficial differences, it’s considered good by many to abuse so long as appearances differ sufficiently in accordance with the current culturally approved bias. That should not happen; it should be illegal.

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  2. 2. Pugsley 6:39 am 06/19/2011

    You certainly do have odd tastes in food, Toby, but from what I’ve heard there are restaurants in China that serve aborted fetuses if you order in advance. Why not go for it if you have the money to spare for a culinary expedition?

    Personally I’m more than happy with seafood, dead cattle, chickens, and milk from at least 3 species. I like carrots and many vegetables too …… although it’s a bit disconcerting to have to slowly kill a carrot to be used in a salad or soup by grating it. That’s the moral dilemma with vegetables, some of them really are best and most nutritious eaten while still alive, and who are we to place our lives ahead of theirs? Parasites too, as a species we’re always so quick to kill guinea worms and the like that might be slithering through our veins, livers, guts, and brains. It’s elitism at its most grandiose to think that we humans might be more important than hookworms, squid, cockroaches, or leeches.

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  3. 3. wilsoni 12:37 pm 06/20/2011

    Toby, wow! This is one of the most ridiculous arguments I have ever heard! First off, please refer me to any credible research that shows that children and squid have the same situational awareness. Furthermore, the squid that are being sampled are not held out of water; they are kept in the best possible artificial environment (immersed in cold sea water). The only time they are out of water is when they are removed from the jig and transfered to tanks (about 15 seconds). I know many children that would be happy to hold their breath for longer than that. Research on squid has many applications to human health and physiology. A squid’s giant axon nerves are the most like humans out of any animal. Basically everything known about human nerves is thanks to research on squid.

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  4. 4. wilsoni 1:52 pm 06/20/2011

    In addition, any squid killed for stomach or statolith is done quickly and as humanely as possible.

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