As in coastal Canada, however, we must at least ask: was the shift, perhaps, a boon? A quarter of a billion pounds is a huge take, even compared to the tuna and jack of yore. And yet, the deeper you look into the value of the largest fishery in the Gulf, the less favorably the new regime seems to compare. To start, Humboldt squid is cheap: a fisherman sells it for about five cents per pound. By comparison, tuna and jack are precious, fetching a few dollars per pound. And it's instructive to cut still deeper into such monetary measures. A fisherman casts aside a squid's arms, tentacles, and head—everything but the mantle, that tubular torso of muscle. So if you calculate what he gets for every pound pulled from the water, it works out to be more like two or three cents. And though this quantity is irrelevant at the market, it is nonetheless meaningful as a measure of hard labor at sea.
For squid, that labor is done at night, when the animals rise from the depths to feed nearer the surface. This makes the undertaking more dangerous, not to mention hard on fishermen and their families. And finally, it's important to remember another way in which average catch and price do not tell the whole story. The predatory fish that have suffered under the squid’s recent dominance make up a diverse assemblage of at least six different species. Diversity in an ecosystem often confers the same benefit as it does in a stock portfolio: when conditions are bad for one part, they are good for another, and thus the system as a whole is less prone to spikes and crashes. And since fishermen and their communities are not the sort of investors who can wait out bad times, volatility is as important as average return.
So, no, I do not believe the new regime is better for fishermen. But of course, there are more and less audacious ways to foment revolution and achieve regime shift. To start, you could halt catches of predatory fish; that hasn't really been tried, and, judging from the experience in Canada, it might let the fish rebound whenever the squid happens to have a bad year. More brazenly, you could intentionally overfish Humboldt squid, driving it into decline. Then again, that advice is offered with the caveat that you might soon find yourself up to your neck in jellyfish.
Charles Darwin toppled Homo sapiens from the apex of the Great Chain of Being, depositing him among all the other species in the tree of life. It was, of course, a humbling demotion: man was not so unique and important as he'd presumed. Among the defenders of Darwin's ideas, Thomas Huxley was perhaps the most fervent and determined, for which he earned the nickname "Darwin's bulldog." In 1883, Huxley was invited to give the inaugural address at the International Fisheries Exhibition, in London. He took the opportunity to weigh in on a debate that had lately been heating up between artisanal fishermen and newly emerging, industrial-scale operations. The central question in this debate was this: Should the legislature of the United Kingdom regulate fishing, specifically when and where certain kinds of gear may be used?
Huxley got the answer wrong. Tragically wrong. "I believe," he said, "that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish."
Even as he spoke, several North Atlantic fisheries were in steep decline. But, as would still be the case more than a century later, it seemed more likely to many scientists that the ocean's own mechanisms, and not the work of humans, had to be the cause. Already the two kinds of explanation—those focused on the forces of the ocean below, versus those suspicious of the fishing boats above—were confounding each other. But the fact that it was Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, who so clearly stated the thesis of inexhaustible seas makes one wonder if there wasn't another reason, besides the confounding nature of oceanographic and ecological theories, that it took so long for scientists finally to grasp that top-down control can in fact happen in the ocean. Perhaps that idea has seemed at odds with the basic Darwinian notion that we are but one twig among many—not atop Nature, but within it. In other words, having toppled man from the Great Chain, it was difficult for Huxley and others after him to see that Homo sapiens was indeed at the top of every food chain. Compared with the ocean's vast shoals and voracious predators, Huxley argued in his speech, fishermen are minute in stature, trivial in their impacts. But could it be that such humility with respect to the rest of the natural world is sometimes tragically misplaced?