The provocative obfuscator


by Sofi Thanhauser


Elizabeth Cecil

“Three is enough,” says Angela Sparta, age 90, in a low, cool voice that seems accustomed to being obeyed. “You don’t want to use more because it’s very strong. My mother used to use more, but I never did.”

Angela is standing in the kitchen of her small, bright apartment in Salem, New Hampshire, stirring a pot of bubbling marinara. Next to her at the counter is her niece, Island fisherwoman Janet Messineo, who is expertly sliding the mantle casing off of a squid, leaving a small knot of internal organs clinging to its tentacles.

While Angela adds a few tablespoons of water to the sauce, Janet extracts from the innards a tiny silver sac the size and shape of a lemon seed, and lays it next to two others on a saucer. Using a fork, Janet crushes the three ink sacs against the saucer, then pulls away the empty casings. Janet hands the saucer to Angie, who coaxes the precious black paste into her saucepan with circular motions of a steaming, red-stained wooden spoon.

As the squid ink is added to the sauce, its color changes, as though a shadow has been cast over the pan. This color change betokens a deepening and broadening of the tomato’s flavor—the ink doesn’t so much add a new flavor as serve to bring out a richness in those that are there already.

Angela has been making this dish since girlhood. She learned it from her mother, Natalina Messineo, who emigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, from Sicily in 1904. Like other small baitfish such as eel and smelt, squid forms a part of the southern Italian Christmas Eve “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

“When I was born, there was a depression,” Angela recalls. “My mother couldn’t afford to buy meat or anything. Squid was very cheap in those days. Nobody ate it, just the Italians.” Today squid, which most often appears on menus under its Italian name, “Calamari,” has gone mainstream, even upscale.

Although the squid in the grocery store and fish market is sold pre-cleaned in lifeless-looking white tubes, Angie is able to keep her mother’s recipe alive because, as luck would have it, she has a fisherwoman in the family. Every year, Janet sets aside some of her catch and freezes it, to bring up to Salem for aunt Angie.

Enter the Mystery

Loligo pealeii, or longfin inshore squid, migrate into Vineyard harbors every May and stay through the summer months. They spawn in our waters and attach their eggs in long “egg mops” on the ocean floor. Recreational squid fishing is done at night, when the squid rise like dreams up through the dark water, drawn to the light from harbor lamps or the flashlight beams of sleepless fishermen.

Why do squid gravitate towards light? “Nobody knows,” says Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist and squid expert at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. And where exactly do the Loligo pealeii go when they leave the Vineyard in the fall? “We’re not really sure” says Lisa Hendrickson, aResearch Fishery Biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, who assesses the stock of Loligo pealeii, among other fish stocks.

It seems fitting that the squid keeps the experts guessing. After all, squid is the great obfuscator; for a squid, to be seen, to be known, is to be dead. His famous ink cloud trick, which leaves predators in a localized black out, is only one item in the squid’s impressive repertoire of visual deception.

Dawn Bellante, general manager at Martha’s Vineyard Online, still remembers pulling a squid out of the Edgartown Harbor some years ago and watching the lambent, wildly shifting colors dance across its body. “I couldn’t believe it. It was the most amazing thing. It looked like…” and she pauses here, visibly abashed. “It looked like a world.”

Squid skin is covered in thousands of tiny chromatophores—pigment containing and light reflecting cells that act somewhat like pixels on a television screen. If a squid wants to disappear, he can quickly transform the visual data entering his huge eyes into an image on his skin.

The squid also has, of course, his less sophisticated tactics. Jay Wilbur, Tisbury Harbormaster, still remembers being bitten by one on a fishing boat as a child. “We really needed squid to use as bait, because it was the only thing the tuna were eating,” he recalls. “And they were big tuna.”

When he finally landed a squid, it sunk its sharp beak into his finger, prompting him to hurl it back overboard. “What did you do that for?” the owner roared. “It bit me,” Jay replied. “Squid don’t bite!” the owner countered, to which Jay responded by holding up his hand and saying, “Then why is my finger bleeding?”

If you are willing to risk all that, there is nothing else to stop you. Squid fishing is the populist sport par excellence. It requires no permit, no boat, no expensive gear, and very little know-how. All you need is some patience, a simple jig that can be made with a clothes pin, and a willingness to forego sleep.

Oh yes, and one more thing. You need for there to be squid in the water.

The Vanishing Act

Since the advent of inshore drag netting, the Cape and Islands have become a substantially less tranquil atmosphere in which tospawn, and a much less safe place for young squid to hatch. Dragnets tear up the substrate, or ocean floor, sending egg mops floating off into the sea. The grown Loligo must contend with weir nets the length of football fields strung across Nantucket sound.

Loligo pealeii have a short life span, an average of six months. This means there is a complete turnover in population every year. “Live fast, reproduce, die young. That’s their motto,” says Hanlon.

This short lifespan, combined with the fact that this species moves around a lot, up and down the coast from Cape Hatteras to Georges Bank, and in- and offshore as far as the continental slope, where the thick continental crust of North America ends, makes keeping tabs on their numbers and location a difficult proposition.

Loligo pealeii is referred to as a “lightly exploited” stock in a recent stock assessment released by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. To arrive at this designation, scientists compare the amount of squid they believe to be in the ocean, a figure they call “biomass,” with the amount being removed each year, the amounts landed and discarded at sea by fishermen, plus losses from natural mortality.

The scientists’ mathematical model does not, however, take into account the countless eggs destroyed by dragnets. To include this factor, says Hendrickson, it would first be necessary to prove that being run over by a dragnet has a negative effect on a squid egg mop. Additional funding would be necessary to conduct such a study.

However, an unsettling trend emerges in this report. Squid catches, measured in thousands of metric tons, ranged from the teens to low twenties throughout the 1990s. Then, the numbers start to drop off. Every year since 2005, landings have declined. They hit a record low in 2009, at 9,306 metric tons, and then broke that record to set a new low of 6,855 metric tons in 2010.

Hendrickson points to seasonal closures of the fishery (i.e. reduced fishing effort) and water temperature changes as two possible sources of the declines, and also points out that ocean systems are complex and contain many variables that affect the availability of squid to fishermen.

Hopefully, this summer, we will see the squid come back in force. Angela is going to need more material to work with if she is going to continue her family’s tradition of pasta with black sauce. After all, as she says, “If it’s good, leave it alone. Never change it.”