California squid isn't staying local

Published on
December 22, 2016

There’s plenty of squid* in the waters off California, but little of it is ending up on Californian dinner tables – at least not without a 12,000-mile round trip to Asia for processing.

Squid is the fifth-largest fishery in the United States by weight, but the vast majority of it is frozen and exported – mostly to China – to be processed and then distributed to more than 40 countries globally. But while that overall market is valued at USD 107 million (EUR 102.5 million), less than half a percentage point of that makes it back to the U.S., according to a report from National Public Radio.

The owners of a San Diego restaurant, Mitch’s Seafood, that seeks to serve local fish, spent three years looking for a a California-based squid processor for their calamari, NPR reported, eventually finding out a local partner in San Pedro, California-based Tri-Marine.

"We have to pay twice as much for it, but it's worth it so that we can say we offer California-caught and processed squid," owner Mitch Conniff told NPR. "Squid that's caught two to three miles away takes a 10,000-mile round-trip journey before I can get it back into my restaurant."

California Wetfish Producers Association Executive Director Diane Pleschner-Steele said two main factors are at work: Americans’ preference for smaller-sized squid and the cheaper price of labor abroad.

Squid cleaning, involving the removal of the eyes, cartilage, skin and guts, is difficult and time-consuming, and it’s cheaper to have this done overseas than domestically, Pleschner-Steele said. Californians working in seafood processing plants earn an average of USD 12.00 (EUR 11.50) per hour, while laborers in China average USD 7.00 (EUR 6.70) per day. Recently, squid processing work has moved to Thailand, as companies spent even less on labor there, Pleschner-Steele said.

The cost of freight, average about USD 0.10 (EUR 0.09) per pound round trip to Asia and back, is not enough to tip the scales in favor of domestic processing, she added.
In addition, Americans generally prefer larger-sized squid – typically Pagatonian squid imported from Argentina, or Humboldt squid fished in Mexico or Peru. Squid caught in Californian waters and is largely consumed in Asia or used for bait, according to NPR.

Pleschner-Steele told NPR that squid fishing is one of the more sustainable and energy-efficient forms of protein – and could be even greater if consumers were willing to pay more for locally sourced calamari. She estimated it would cost USD 1.50 (EUR 1.44) per pound to make that happen.

"California squid fishing fleets are one of the most energy efficient in the world because [they're] so close to port. Our boats can produce a ton of proteins for about six gallons of diesel fuel. ... Efficiency is key,” she told NPR.

But the "truth is that Americans aren't willing to pay for it,” she continued. “If people were willing to pay the price, we can definitely feed the demand."

*Squid is the species being highlighted during Day 12 of SeafoodSource’s “12 Days of Seafood” campaign. Find below more relevant news and resources regarding squid:

Squid and shellfish now the only boosters for Chinese exports

New frozen seafood line appeals to millennials

Vietnam discovers valuable species in its waters

PME: Bait sourcing getting more challenging and expensive

Top 6 creepiest sea species

New CEO named at US calamari producer The Town Dock

Fusion cuisine trend inspires new seafood salad product

Small seafood players get creative to survive

Cabomar introduces salt and pepper breaded squid rings at SEG

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