Could migrating squid help Alaska predict climate change?

Attracted to warming ocean temperatures, small, iridescent squid have been moving into Southeast Alaska waters. They could be a cipher to understanding how sea life reacts to climate change, said University of Alaska Southeast associate professor Dr. Michael Navarro at an Evening at Egan talk Friday at UAS.

Navarro, an assistant professor of marine fisheries, has been studying what are called market squid in partnership with researchers at Stanford University. With the help of undergraduate students, he opened his lab at UAS last month.

He’s trying to understand if market squid are setting up shop here or only visiting. The squid don’t historically range north of British Columbia. Alaska researchers, however, have encountered them in waters in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast for more than a decade.

“They’re extending further and it’s more persistent. … But does this mean these squid are now Alaska residents?” Navarro asked, standing at the lectern at the Egan Library in front of a crowd of 50.

To find the answer, Navarro and his team are studying how market squid age and reproduce in Alaska. If the squid act similarly in the 49th state as they do elsewhere, there might be a scientific case to claim that they’re here to stay.

Southeast Alaska has a high vulnerability to climate-caused disruption to sea life and the economy that depends on it, Navarro’s research shows. The presence of squid could affect Southeast waters, and in turn, the region’s multi-million dollar commercial fisheries.

Researchers don’t yet know how market squid will fit into Alaska’s marine food web. Market squid are a “forage species”: they’re eaten by many kinds of marine life, and could be a new source of prey for commercial stocks.

It’s also possible they compete for the same feed as commercial stocks or their prey, Navarro said. His Stanford collaborators are looking at this in a study on the ecological effects of market squid in Sitka Sound.

One of climate changes “winners,” market squid could proliferate in Southeast if waters continue to warm, opening up economic opportunity for fishermen.

California market squid fisheries are a multi-million dollar industry that uses similar gear to Southeast’s salmon seiners, who target pink salmon during the summer spawning season.

If warming ocean temperatures cause a decline in salmon numbers, market squid could be there to replace them. Policy-makers have already experimented with the idea of introducing a market squid test fishery in Southeast, Navarro said.

Market squid live only 4-9 months, making them ideal for studying their reactions to climate change. Because they spawn every month, Navarro can track how their spawning behavior changes in various ocean temperatures.

“I think it’s a good time to start talking about things we can do to afford these anticipated changes,” Navarro said.