Squid Fishing is a Boon to the Local Economy

It's the linchpin of Galilee, which lands more squid than any port on the East Coast.
squid fishing
Squid. Illustration by Jessica Roux

It’s high squid fishing season. Recreational anglers crowd the Calamari (Goat Island) Causeway at night, carrying floating water lights and special jigs to scoop them up in buckets. The commercial fleet is pumping squid into the Port of Galilee by the boatload. From the seabed to the boat to a saltwater flume that shoots them into the maw of a dockside processing facility, they are sorted, graded and flash frozen at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

In late March, Ryan Clark, president and CEO of the Town Dock, took advantage of a quiet pre-season moment to demonstrate how the Loligo pealei, or longfin squid, is hand-gutted and cleaned. He deftly slices the tentacles from the body just above the eye and pulls out the beak. The guts and the backbone — called the quill for its resemblance to a molted flight feather — are extracted from the long tube of its body. Clark works his thumb between the skin and flesh to peel off the skin, then strips off the back fins to produce a white tube.

A squid’s body is soft and offers little resistance to disassembly. At full throttle, workers at the Town Dock’s Johnston facility hand-process 500 squid an hour to send on their way to Spain, China or your favorite local seafood joint.

“It’s not typical manufacturing,” says Clark. “The seafood world is very challenging with the unpredictable nature of fisheries. There are so many dynamics going on in the ocean. The science tries to keep up, but no one knows what’s underneath the waves. My team has to gear up. When squid season is upon us, it’s all hands on deck to keep the boats going to maximize the catch.”

The Rhode Island fleet has been so adept at maximizing this particular catch that Galilee is now the number one port for longfin squid landings on the East Coast. In 2015, for example, Rhode Island landed sixteen million pounds. New York, its nearest competitor, landed about 4.3 million pounds.

Last year was Rhode Island’s best yet, with 119 vessels landing 22.6 million pounds of squid, valued at $28.6 million. Once an underutilized species, squid is the linchpin of the port. With three processors — the others are Sea Fresh USA and Seafreeze — Galilee also attracts out-of-state vessels, magnifying the economic impact, says Department of Environmental Management (DEM) port manager Daniel Costa.

“Squid is not a state-restricted fin fish. Other vessels come here because of our processing and they are the ones buying the fuel, the ice, the groceries,” he says. “They are getting their vessels repaired here and mending their nets. They are spending a lot of money and that is where we get the boost.”

Rodman Sykes, a commercial fisherman for forty-seven years, recalls the days when Rhode Island-caught squid never hit the shore.

“In the 1980s a lot of squid was sold to foreign boats. The [Point Judith Fishermen’s Cooperative] contracted with companies, and big Spanish ships would come and we would sell our fish directly to them,” he says. “The markets hadn’t developed.”

But two decades ago, the American palate began to catch up and a ravenous appetite for squid helped build Rhode Island-based businesses, like the Town Dock, into major squid processors. The Town Dock, with its own seven-vessel fleet and a network of partner anglers, is now the largest supplier of calamari in the United States.

“Calamari really started to show up on a lot of appetizer menus at Italian restaurant chains and other seafood restaurants in the mid-to late-1990s,” Clark says. “That’s when the idea of cleaning and processing squid into clean tube and tentacles for restaurants became established. Our business, which was 100 percent export, gradually shifted to support this new demand in the United States.”

In 2013, Warwick State Representative Joseph McNamara took some ribbing for a bill he and Senator Susan Sosnowski submitted in their respective chambers designating calamari the official state appetizer. But neither the commercial fishing industry nor the hospitality community saw anything frivolous about promoting one of Rhode Island’s most important exports. A year later, it was signed into law by then-Governor Lincoln Chafee on a sun-splashed Friday in June.

The Newport Restaurant Group — which serves calamari marinated and grilled, fried and tossed with hot peppers and a white wine and butter reduction, or with a side of red pepper aioli at seven of its eight restaurants — sold 30,000 pounds of it last year.

“Calamari is the top-selling appetizer at almost all of our restaurants. When you look at protein, it’s one of the more unusual ingredients. It has a nice bite to it, a fresh, clean taste and a salty sea flavor,” says chef Karsten Hart, director of restaurant operations. “When people visit New England they want a New England experience and squid is such an integral part of our fishery.”

In 2011, the General Assembly created the Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative to coordinate efforts among the fishing and restaurant communities, seafood dealers and retailers, scientists and state officials to grow the commercial fishing sector. Two years later, the collaborative developed and released an official Rhode Island Seafood logo to brand the local catch.

“I want to make sure that the DEM supports the fishing industry by maintaining the infrastructure and promoting the contributions of local seafood. We had a banner year with squid in 2016 and it has become a bit of a rallying point,” says DEM Director Janet Coit. “We need to continue to invest.”

In 2013, the DEM completed repairs on the port’s main working pier for large vessels and 925 feet of bulkhead from Salty Brine State Beach to State Pier, used by ferry and charter boats, with a $2.9 million United States Economic Development Administration grant and $3.2 million in state funds.

The state, however, plays no role in managing the squid fishery. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Council monitors the stocks and sets the quotas,  a source of frustration for state officials.

“When the regional councils were formed, squid wasn’t a high priority for Rhode Island. We had more ground fish,” says Jason McNamee, the state DEM’s chief of marine resources. “Through climate change, the range of species are shifting and expanding and we are seeing the flaw in the regional council system. We are now the largest harvester of squid on the Atlantic coast and we don’t have much to say on the management of that species.”

The squid fishery is generally considered healthy. Distributed from Iceland to Florida, squid live short lives of eight to eighteen months. But they are prodigious reproducers. And when the squid move inland to spawn in warmer, shallower waters, each female can lay, on average, 20,000 eggs. The federal quota system for the longfin squid is split into trimesters, with the tightest catch limits in the second period from May to August.
Annually, the cap is generous — nearly fifty million pounds — and is rarely reached. But the fleet does hit the seasonal caps. Last year, the fishery closed two months into the second trimester.

“We are trying to optimize the harvest without harming the long-term health of the fishery, and to make sure to have a sustainable amount of squid caught indefinitely,” says Douglas W. Christel, fishery policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Last year was peak squid. This year, there’s no telling.

Commercial fisherman Chris Brown, captain of the F/V Proud Mary and president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, fishes 200 days a year, and he counts on nothing except his ability to recognize the opportunities nature presents.

“There is no certainty. We fish for dollars,” he says. “Whatever represents the best economic return, we drift that way. Certainly it is our lifeblood and we are economically over-dependent on squid, but it may work out.”