Squid are an important component of the marine ecosystems of the East Coast, serving as forage for a wide variety of inshore and offshore fish, birds and marine mammals. They also support a substantial commercial fishery, and are widely used as bait by recreational anglers.
Although squid are agile, free-swimming animals, they are mollusks, belonging to the same phylum as oysters and snails. Along with the octopus, cuttlefish and rare nautilus, they belong to the class of cephalopods, a term that can be roughly translated as “head feet,” a reference to the ring of tentacles that surround the mouths of these species.
Two species of squid are commonly seen on the East Coast. One is Ilex illecebrosus, generally referred to as “summer squid” or merely as “Illex.” The other is Doryteuthis pealeii, more popularly known as “longfin squid,” “winter squid” or “Loligo squid” (because of their former technical name, Loligo pealeii).
Most anglers don’t target squid, but the creatures do support a small recreational fishery. Squid fishing generally takes place at night during the summer and fall, when squid are readily attracted to artificial lights. Squid anglers traditionally fish around well-lit docks, bridges and other structures, where squid were known to congregate.
There, they used hookless “squid jigs”—teardrop-shaped lures made of metal or weighted plastic studded with wire spikes—intended to imitate shrimp or small fish. Squid attack the jig, at which point their tentacles become entangled in the metal spikes, allowing anglers to lift the creatures out of the water. Recently, enthusiastic squid anglers have invested in powerful sets of lights which illuminate the water far better than typical dock lights, and attract squid in greater numbers than dock lights normally do.
Some party boats in the northeast have occasionally offered night trips targeting squid when more popular fish were not available. Although such trips have become somewhat popular in California where anglers can sometimes encounter the five- and six-foot-long Humboldt squid, they have not been well received on the East Coast where squid are considerably smaller and are generally viewed as bait rather than a quarry worthy of a party boat fare.
Squid support significant commercial fisheries. Virtually all East Coast squid are caught in small-mesh trawls, which are towed close to the ocean bottom.
Longfin squid are, by far, the more valuable. 2015 landings exceeded 26 million pounds, which earned an aggregate ex vessel price of over 31 million dollars. Illex squid are more perishable and command a far lower price. Even so, over 5 million pounds of Illex were landed in 2015, which sold for more than 1.5 million dollars.
Boats sailing out of Rhode Island dominate the East Coast squid fishery, accounting for about 60% of all longfin and 40% of all Illex squid landed in 2015.
Range and Biology
Illex and longfin squid have a similar life history, but differ in distribution.
Illex squid are present on the continental shelf and continental slope throughout much of the North Atlantic, where they may be found anywhere from the surface down to about 3,500 feet beneath the surface. They prefer cooler water. Thus, they are most abundant from the Gulf of Maine north along the Labrador coast to Baffin Island, off southern Greenland and along the western, southern and eastern shores of Iceland. However, in the western Atlantic they are present along the edge of the continental shelf as far south as Florida, and in the eastern Atlantic can be found as far south as the British Isles.
Longfin squid prefer warmer waters, and are not found in the eastern Atlantic. They range from Newfoundland south to Venezuela, with the majority of the fishing occurring between New England and North Carolina.
Illex squid have a lifespan of less than one year. In order to support the population, they spawn throughout the year. Biologists have identified two separate groups of spawners, one which spawn during spring and summer, and one which spawns during autumn and winter. Spawning takes place in deep water, and most of the spawning squid die soon after the spawn in completed. Mature Illex reach a maximum size of about 12 inches in the northern part of its range; southern Illex are smaller, and don’t grow larger than about 8 inches. Females are slightly larger than males.
Longfin squid also live for less than one year. Like Illex, they spawn in both summer and winter. Off the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts, they spawn in the bays and in other shallow waters during late spring and summer, and at the very edge of the continental shelf during winter and early spring. Longfin squid reach a maximum length of about 20 inches at the northern end of its range, but rarely grow as large as 12 inches in more southerly waters. Males are somewhat larger than females.
Squid are managed in federal waters by the National Marine Fisheries Service, pursuant to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Atlantic Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fisheries Management Plan. While Illex squid harvest is controlled through a single annual catch limit, the annual catch limit for longfin squid is broken down further into trimesters. Currently, 43% of the landings are allotted to the first trimester (January-April), 17% to the second trimester (May-August) and the remaining 40% to the third (September-December).
According to the best available science, the longfin squid stock is in relatively good condition, with the spawning stock biomass estimated to be well above the spawning stock biomass target. Yet, due to a lack of reliable reference points, biologists cannot determine whether or not the longfin squid are subject to overfishing.
Biologists lack the information needed to determine whether or not Illex squid are overfished or experiencing overfishing. However, abundance appears to be declining, presumably because of unfavorable oceanographic conditions.