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Our nemesis, the squid

Erica Mu

On Friday, August 10, KALW's community storytelling team Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project invited you to the first-ever "Story Slam-wich." That's right: a grilled cheese cook-off and storytelling competition. Our winning story came from Max McClure, a Stanford University science writer, who shared these thoughts on an old enemy: the squid.

In 2009, reports started coming in from San Diego to the effect that squid were "attacking" divers. These were Humboldt or "jumbo" squid, Dosidicus gigas, man-sized, hundred-pound six-footers, thousands of them, and they had barbed, tooth-like projections ringing every sucker and an apparent grabby interest in the gleaming lights and computers and so on that divers like to tote around - so the histrionic tone that some of these reports took was understandable, as were the camera crews hitting the beach to get close-up, vaguely prurient shots of the parrot-like beaks tucked beneath the animals' tentacle skirts.

It behooves me to point out that there are no recorded deaths due to Humboldt squid attacks, and the only injuries I've heard of have been to fishermen and meddling biologists. Still, there is something disconcerting about their arrival. The squid are native to the Chilean and Peruvian coast, but they've been moving north for decades – they became California regulars in the '90s, and they've recently been spotted in Alaska. We don't know why: it could be seawater oxygen levels; it could be temperature; or over-fishing of other species. We do know, however, that they're learning to eat new things. Farther south, Dosidicus sticks mainly to minuscule lanternfish, while the ones that spend their time up here have developed a taste for bigger game - salmon, Pacific hake. What a terrible miscalculation this is. Those are our fish - in fact, they make up some of the West Coast's largest fisheries.

The squid, in essence, have attacked our women and eaten our bread. So, what's to be done? According to Chris Cosentino, head chef of San Francisco's Incanto, "We eat them!"

This is courtesy of a Men's Journal article titled "Save the Ocean, Eat a Squid," which approximates a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the issue - eating to defend the homeland. Some visionaries are seriously hawking the concept: Incanto and a few other local places braise the meat, grind it into pasta sauce, grill it in steaks. One intrepid group of scientists set out to develop a jumbo squid frankfurter, catchily referred to as a "mantle muscle gelled-emulsified type product."

As a military strategy, the idea doesn't make much sense. New invertebrate dishes aren't in the American dietary playbook, especially when the squid flesh in question is most often described as "vulcanized." When it comes to changing palates, it seems likely that the squid will outpace us. And it's doubtful that there's an ecological need for a domestic Dosidicus market in the first place. For one thing, we don't know nearly enough about their population structure to control it. For another, somebody else is on it already. The Humboldt squid catch, currently focused in the Gulf of California, constitutes the biggest invertebrate fishery in the world, mainly intended for the open-minded seafood appetites of Japan and Korea.

But these caveats don't matter - the push for Americans to consume the invading force remains, because there is a long human history of wanting to personally eat the things that threaten us. What better way to reassert our apex role than by mystically devouring the pretenders? That's why we have rattlesnake roundups and feral pig hunts. The Maori of New Zealand had a whole genre of songs that expressed the desire to eat one's rival. The people of Tenochtitlan would stand atop their pyramids and rip out the still-beating hearts of fallen enemy soldiers, saving the victims' limbs for stewing later. For my money, these are effective displays of dominance.

It's worth pointing out, as an aside, that I know much of what I know about squid because I used to work in a squid lab, where I spent my time measuring the electrical impulses of their neurons. According to tradition, this meant taking the neurons out of their heads first, which you do by decapitating the animal, cutting a slit up the mantle, stripping away a host of paraphernalia, and lifting the relevant prenerves to cut the stellate ganglion free of the muscle.

If you try a similar procedure in a mouse – and I have, in sort of a general, brain-removal way -–you'll need your protocol approved by a review board. Not so with the squid. Never mind that octopuses modify their environments in a way that looks a lot like tool use, or that cuttlefish communicate with such a complex set of skin patterns that it's been described as a kind of language. While there are laboratory regulations in place for the lowest of vertebrates, there are no federal guidelines for the treatment of cephalopods – there's nothing stopping me from slapping the stuffing out of an octopus even as it attempts to construct, say, a rudimentary plow.

This is just to say that the Humboldt squid is a member of "the other," beyond the reach of conventional morality, and that this invites our feelings of aggression. After all, they're violent barbarians, with a reputation for cannibalism that is likely warranted, though just as likely over-reported. If a group of Humboldt squid is brought to the surface in a net, they tend to start gnawing on their brethren. But they've just been yanked up a thousand meters by an invisible force - they're stressed, and they're frantically trying to eat their way out of the situation. Which is an impulse we should be able to identify with.

No, there's something more fundamental fueling our animosity. Cephalopod otherness is biological. They represent the intellectual acme of an alternate evolutionary strategy – they are Bizarro primates. At nearly every single adaptive decision point, they came up with a different solution than we did. They have no backbones, their eyes are structurally the opposite of ours, they have blue copper-containing blood. Their worldview doesn't even derive from the same neurobiological hardware we use. Their nerves look different, larger, because cephalopods never developed myelin, which makes our nerves so conductive. Their nervous systems are highly decentralized: I've seen buckets full of ostensibly de-brained octopus, heads floppy and hollow, still capable of grabbing onto your hand and pulling. The cephalopod represents the most profoundly alien intelligence that any of us are likely to encounter. Better fry 'em all before they figure out the myelin thing.

Unfortunately, this very physical alien-ness raises the question of getting the message across. With a rattlesnake or a conquistador we can at least imagine that they will comprehend some universal vertebrate code for "I have eaten your friends." With squid, octopus, cuttlefish, we'd be better off flashing them a threat pattern with Lite-Brites. The eating is then maybe best framed as a kind of incantation against developments we don't understand. Our responses to the complexities of the changing ocean often have this air of the cargo cult.

I bought my own personal Dosidicus totem at Manila Oriental Market in the Excelsior. It was off-season, and the animal was very small, a mantle length of about a foot. It was markedly nonthreatening, curled like offal on a bed of ice. Few animals lose so much in death - there's little in common between the live squid I've seen in videos, darting through the midocean with dire balletic precision, and the late cephalopod, bereft of its seawater support, flabbily splayed out for dissection.

And the incantation is like dissection – it starts with you chopping off the ring of arms and tentacles just below the head. Push on the ring's center, and you'll pop the beak right out of the flesh, drag a knife across the tentacles and you'll dislodge the hooks. Pull on the head and it too will readily slide from within the squid mantle, taking the organs with it. It's a convenient packaging job – a simple sleeve of muscle with quick-release innards, an organism designed by Swedes. Peeling away Dosidicus's skin with a table knife will be the most time-consuming step by far. Remember that this animal communicates through color changes - you are thus de-tonguing it, leaving only the silent white latex of victory. Chop into hoops and individual tentacles and fry with breadcrumbs, cumin, red pepper, salt, whatever you have lying around. Serve with pasta and fresh tomatoes. It should taste fine, even without tenderizing. Throw its diminished body down the steps of your pyramid.

This story is a part of Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project. To find out more, visit the project’s website. You can also find the project on Facebook or follow it on Twitter @hearhereradio