Sunday, April 27, 2008

Attack Of The Giant Squid

Image credit: National Maritime Museum UK. The caption reads:

Illustration showing giant squid attack, p.275 from Jules Vernes, 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea', First English edition, 1870. F5715-004.

Apparently, the Pacific Northwest has something new to be very afraid of:

WASHINGTON — They aren't your normal calamari. But the jumbo squid now lurking off the Pacific Northwest coast could threaten salmon runs and signal yet another change in the oceans brought on by global warming.

The squid, which can reach seven feet long and weigh up to 110 pounds, are aggressive, thought to hunt in packs and can move at speeds of up to 15 mph. In Mexico, they're known as diablos rojos, or red devils. They reportedly will attack divers when they feel threatened.

'Voracious' jumbo squid invading Pacifc Northwest waters

Despite the lurid headline, the squids seem to be more of a problem for fishermen than anyone else. They're feasting on the local salmon and other fish. Not especially good news for the local economy, but you'd think that everyone in the Northwest was in danger if you just read the headline and the lede.

We'd gone almost half a day without any lurid tales of monster sea creatures attacking people. As they say in the news business:

Dog bites man isn't news. Now, giant sea creature bites man - send a film crew!!

Needless to say, American news organizations have left it to their British counterparts to put things in perspective:

Local MP Ian Cohen has been urging people not to use this as an excuse to attack sharks. He is quoted in ABC local news saying:

“There is nothing more horrifying than a shark attack obviously, but we [need to] look at it and look at the figures and the frequency, I just hope that there is not a reaction to see that people would go out and start slaughtering sharks or support that...

"It happened when Steve Irwin got hit by the stingray - there was a spate of hunting rays.
"There are people who don't think in a broader way. If we vilify the shark as a creature as has happened for so many years, then there is not the pressure to acknowledge the need for conservation of these species."

Australia has one of the world's highest rates of shark attacks but few of them are fatal. The Shark Institute of Australia says sharks have killed 11 people off its shores in 50 years.

Surfer killed in fatal shark attack

More people die in auto accidents in the U.S. every day.

That's our news for you, keeping us afraid of the stuff that hardly ever happens to anyone and ignoring the stuff that kills us all.

UPDATE (Jun. 27): Someone at Pharyngula was kind enough to point me to an article on the sort of squid the article was referring to:

Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) hunt in large numbers along the coasts of both North and South America, from Chile to Baja California. They have occasionally been spotted as far north as San Francisco, but never before in large numbers or over long periods of time. In recent years, mass strandings of Humboldt squid on Southern California beaches have led to speculation that the squid might be expanding their range. This study provides the first scientific records to prove that assertion.
The researchers speculate that, during El Niño years, currents from the south help carry Humboldt squid northward to new feeding areas. However, Humboldt squid are believed to live for only a year or two, and El Niño events occur every three to seven years on the average. Thus, El Niño-related currents alone could not maintain a large population of Humboldt squid in this area.

This may explain why the squid that appeared in 1997 disappeared within a year or two—they came and they ate, but they did not reproduce locally and eventually died out. Since 2002, however, the authors suggest that Humboldt squid have been both feeding and reproducing off Central California.

Humboldt squid on the move

A couple of points emerge once you've read the article. One is that the squid here, while large and potentially dangerous to divers, aren't the huge form of squid mentioned in this news report. True giant squid can grow to be 50 feet (15 meters) in length. The other is that the (re-)emergence of this species may have more to do with overfishing of tuna and other predators that compete with these squid than with climate change.

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