An invasion of predatory Humboldt squid into northern Pacific waters is decimating hake catches in the Pacific Ocean, including along Chile's coast. This is the conclusion of an extensive study carried out over 19 years by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
Although there has long been speculation that Humboldt squid have been expanding their range, the study, led by Bruce Robison senior scientist at MBARI, provides the first scientific records to back this up. The data produced from the research found no observations of Humboldt squid in Monterey Bay from the start of their study in 1989 to 1997. However, after a strong El Niño event in 1997, large numbers of the squid were spotted for a year or two before disappearing again. But, since a mild El Niño event in 2002, the carnivores returned and have remained abundant for the last five years. The study surmised that the squid have profited from falling numbers of billfish and large tuna in the area. "Ironically, these squid may have benefited from the decline of large tuna and billfish in the Equatorial Pacific, which previously preyed upon and competed with the Humboldt squid for food." This expansion poses a serious threat to Pacific hake, an important commercial fish for Chile, as it is a favorite part of the squid's diet. In fact, Robison's survey data showed that within a month after populations of Humboldt squid increased in Monterey Bay, the number of hake dropped dramatically. In the last few years, Humboldt squid have also been expanding their range southward along the coast of South America, and may be threatening hake fisheries there. Federico Silva, president of Sonapesca (Chile's National Fishing Society), fears increasing squid numbers could have grave consequences for Chile's fishermen. "This study has shown the true magnitude of the plague. The fishing industry in Chile has suffered a grade eight earthquake." The declining numbers of hake has recently been a source of serious debate in Chile. Subsistence fishermen in Valparaiso and Viña del Mar protested to the government in August as they felt that industrial fishing was responsible for the hake decline . However, this latest research, completed in July, points to squid as the cause for their fall. According to statistics from IFOP (Institute for Fishing Promotion), in 2002 the estimated hake biomass around Chile's coasts was 1.5 million tons. But in 2004, the figure had been reduced to 272,000 tons. By Rupert Rowling The Santiago Times