For the past couple nights I’ve dreamed about being attacked by giant calamari; not the fried variety, but the long, gelatinous species, which wrap me up in big squid rings and push me into the sea. Which I’m sure has everything to do with spending the day in Hakodate, on the big island of Hokkaido, Japan’s squid capital.
The streets leading to the morning market are heavy with restaurants, each featuring an illustration of a squid on its awning, billboard or even in neon. At open-air shops, tanks of still swimming squid are surrounded by trays of squid on ice, squid wrapped tight in plastic, dried squid, hammered squid, all cut, sliced and diced. Souvenir shops feature plastic squids, squid pens, even drinking cups made from … squid. You won’t be surprised that squid have been a staple here for thousands of years.
(The biggest squid ever caught? Twenty-four feet long. The largest invertebrate on the planet, they are thought to grow to as long as sixty feet but because they live at such great depths have never been studied in the wild.)
My question for these shopkeepers and restaurant owners, of course, is: Are they at risk of taking too many squid from the sea? Long thought beyond risk of being over fished – they don’t live long anyway, are a very prolific species and fluctuate naturally – the reason they seem to be safe will surprise you.
Normally at home along the coast from Mexico to Chile they are deep-sea creatures, living at depths of 3,000 to 5,000 feet they’re increasingly being found in the colder waters off California, Canada and Alaska. Jumbo squid, six to eight feet long, are booming in areas where they have not previously boomed. The reason for the boom takes us back to Japan, especially the big market at Tuskiji in Tokyo where we were a few days before. Guess what is the main predator of squid? Blue fin tuna. Which are now being badly over fished and sold by the thousands a day in Japan’s markets.
Lots of fingers point to Japan as the greatest threat to the depletion of fish around the world. The Japanese are the world’s biggest consumer of fish; Tuskiji is like an extraordinary mortuary for global sea life. Not only do the Japanese pose a problem for other countries’ fish stocks, but also threaten the world’s fish stocks as a whole. Each day, tens of thousands of tons of marine life, clawed from rocks and scooped from oceans by factory ships working 24 hours a day, are auctioned in the early hours. Japan’s taste for seafood only appears limited by price and availability. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates Japan devours 30 percent of the world’s fresh fish, close to 170 pounds a year for each man, woman and child. Australians, by comparison, manage just 40 pounds.
Some conservationists and marine scientists are increasingly raising questions about how long Japan’s appetite can be accepted as an unquestioned cultural imperative. The constant plundering of the ocean is devastating fish stocks and destroying ecosystems. While we ponder that, there remains one good thing in the sea: There are plenty of squid … so get out the calamari recipes.