Scottish squids in

Observations on Fishing

A mysterious surge in the number of squid in north-eastern Scottish waters over the past few years is puzzling scientists, but delighting local fishermen. The migration is hard to explain, but may be the key to revitalising the Scottish fishing industry, which has been struggling since severe quotas were imposed by the EU in 2003.

The growth in squid availability in the North Sea is generating excitement among policymakers and marine ecologists and has led to the establishment of a new fishery. "There's a lot more squid on the go now," said Mike Montgomery, the project manager for the fishery.

At Peterhead Market, by the Moray Firth, a box of squid (roughly one kilogram) can fetch £9. Off north-east Scotland, where most of the squid are found, more boats are now trawling for squid than the region's traditional catches, such as haddock and cod. In 2005, sales exceeded £4m.

Squid fishing is bringing other advantages, both environmental and commercial. Squid nets do not trap other species of seafood, which dramatically reduces the number of fish trapped and thrown away in accordance with current quota rules. And, as the British develop a growing taste for squid, sales are on the rise, up 49 per cent over the past year.

Scientists are still unsure why squid have migrated northwards over the past few years. Previously, they were found in abundance in the Irish Sea and the Atlantic.

"It might be changes in ocean temperature," said Dr Martin Collins, a marine ecologist from Cambridge. "But it's more likely an effect from the surface current." As the food on which the squid depends moves to other waters, they, too, have no choice but to move with the current.

But scientists admit they have much to learn yet about this particular species, Loligo forbesi. Many other species have been extensively analysed and studied around the world, but little data has been collected on the Scottish stock. This means that the squid's biological functions, its responses to changes in the environment, and its migratory patterns are still a mystery. Explaining the paucity of information, a spokesman for the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations said: "More people have stood on the moon than on the bottom of the sea."

In addition, the movement of squid is subject to extreme variability. In 2005, Scottish fishermen caught 1,898 tonnes of squid, the highest amount on record in the region. In 2006, the catch fell to 871 tonnes. That is one reason for setting up the fishery - to ensure sustainability. If the squid are to thrive, it may be necessary to ensure enough of them escape to lay eggs and continue the cycle. Or it may take more. The fishery still has to find out.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery