OUR COASTAL TREASURE
ST FRANCIS CHOKKA
Visitors to St Francis will soon notice the brightly lit fishing boats out on the bay.
At times it is possible to count up to 50 odd boats out on the water, at other times there are only a few and at certain times of the year all the boats are tied up in the harbour of Port St Francis and there are no Chokka fishing activities at all.
The Chokka fishing industry has developed over the past 40 year and is one of the economic mainstays of St Francis Bay.
Chokka (Loligo reynaudii) is a type of squid that is particular abundant in South African waters and in summer even more so in the bays along the coast from St Francis to Gqeberha where the squid comes to breed.
What a lot of people don’t realise is what an interesting and amazing animal a Chokka is.
Squid is served worldwide as a delicacy also known as Calamari, and when early 80’s it was discovered that the South African Chokka is on a par with squid caught elsewhere in the world, the rush for “White Gold” was on.
The home of the Chokka boats, Port St Francis, is the only privately owned working harbour in South Africa. A visit to the port is very worthwhile and interesting.
Cousins of the Octopus
A Chokka is a squid and an amazing animal. They are decapods, meaning they have 8 arms and two long tentacles which they use to catch prey. They are, together with the cuttlefish, cousins of the octopus. It has a relatively long body and diamond shaped fins. They move by either using these fins or by jet propulsion, sucking water into their body cavity and expelling it through a siphon which can be turned in any direction.
Chameleon of the sea
Chokka ‘talk’ to one another using different body patterns and movements. They have the most incredible skin, which is covered with small pockets of dye, which are called chromatophores. The squid are able to contract or expand the muscles in the mantle, and so expand or contract the pockets of dye. They can therefore display a bewildering array of patterns almost instantaneously – a jet propelled chameleon of the sea.
They are formidable predators and feed mainly on small fish. Chokka itself is eaten by sharks, fish, seabirds and marine mammels Many of these predators take advantage of the high numbers of Chokka present during the peak spawning period
Chokka squid is found off the South African coast, up to about 250 m deep, between the Transkei and the Orange River. Their breeding ground however is predominantly along the south-eastern coast of the Eastern Cape, between Plettenberg Bay and Port Alfred. Here they mass in summer in large numbers to mate and lay eggs. The eggs are in a jelly-like substance and about as long as a finger with between 100 and 150 eggs in what are called egg strands. These strands are attached to the sand or flat reef in huge numbers. Each female squid produces a number of strands per day and the resulting egg beds can be as large as a rugby field. The eggs take on average about 20 days to hatch, the hatching time dependant on the temperature of the water. The hatchlings are miniatures of the adults, about 1.5 mm long.
For the first few days they live off the last of the yolk reserves and then have to learn to feed themselves by catching small prey in the water column. For the next few months they grow and search for food, moving with the Agulhas current hundreds of kilometres from St Francis Bay towards Mossel Bay and the Agulhas Bank.
After eight to twelve months they will move back to the spawning grounds, mature and ready to mate and lay eggs. Once the egg laying is over they will die, having a lifespan of some 12-18 months.
The number of squid surviving to spawn each year can vary widely and is dependent on how well the young squid fare. Even a small number of adults can be responsible for a multitude of squid the following season if a greater proportion of their young survive. This of course means that the industry has both good years and bad years depending on the survival rate of each year’s crop of hatchlings.
Amazing Spawning Behaviour
To dive and visit a spawning ground is like arriving at an incredibly busy airport. Squid have the most amazing spawning behaviour. Way above the egg bed the squid find mates, and then they pair off, with the male remaining with the female for at least the period it takes to lay one egg strand. They then mate; the male uses one of his arms, especially modified, to place the sperm inside the mantle cavity of the female near to where the eggs will move out of the oviduct. The female then extrudes the egg strand and holds it in her arms. The two then move down to the egg bed. Here other large males lie in waiting, and try to dislodge the attendant male and win the female by moving between them and jostling the attendant male. The winning male will then protect the female as she moves into the egg bed and places her egg strand using her arms. Here of course there may be a shark or stingray waiting in ambush, ready to pounce once she is distracted. But on most occasions the two will then jet rapidly back into the water column. She now has a new male and the process of mating takes place once again. But , at this stage, mature, but small males may be waiting in ambush. Unable to compete at the egg bed against the large males they wait until the female has a new egg strand in her arms and then dive bomb the pair trying to place their sperm on the female’s arms, before the large male can react. They are often successful and so their sperm may be able to fertilise some of the eggs, which have not yet been fertilised by the large male.
The Chokka, which is known to restaurant patrons as calamari, has been caught to use for bait by line fishermen along the southeastern Cape coastline for a long time.
Only in about 1984 it was realised that the catching and exporting of squid could be lucrative and an industry developed. This could be ascribed first, to the recognition by overseas markets (mainly Europe) that the Chokka caught in South Africa was very similar to the one caught in the Mediterranean, and could thus be sold on the local market and secondly, to the fall of the Rand on the foreign exchange markets in the mid 1980’s which made South African Chokka very competitive on many overseas markets. This led to a large increase in catch.
Chokka is caught with hand-held lines with jigs, a type of lure with two rows of barbless hooks. Before the jig fishery developed all squid sold commercially were trawled, caught as a by-catch from boats targeting hake.
Squid were initially hand jigged using Japanese jigs, but locally made varieties soon appeared on the market. It is not unusual when taking a stroll along the beach to find brightly coloured jigs discarded or lost by commercial fishermen washed up on shore.
All jigging is done by hand, most crew members will use at least two lines each with 2 jigs attached, a lead jig with a plastic ‘floater’ above. The hand lines are wound onto a wood holder or a ‘yoyo’, a plastic ring about 30 cm in diameter. The squid are placed into plastic crates as they are caught, and crew are paid per kilogram of squid caught. At regular intervals the squid are sorted by size and packed into 10 kg trays which are placed into a blast freezer on board the vessel. Once frozen, the blocks of squid are knocked out of the trays, glazed using seawater, and placed into plastic bags in a holding freezer.
During the initial ‘gold rush’ phase of the industry, before it became necessary to have a squid permit to catch squid commercially, ski boats were used to catch squid in daylight hours. But it was soon realised that squid were attracted to the deck lights of the few larger vessels that remained at sea overnight, and that large volumes of squid could be caught at night. Chokka are attracted to the lights but tend to gather in the shadows from where they attack their prey in the illuminated area. This behaviour pattern, which also applies to various other commercial squid species, led to the peculiar lamp arrangement. The lamps are not installed outboard, but rather along the centreline of the vessel. They are generally set at a height that ensures that the jigging lines enter the water at or near the boundary of direct light and the shadow cast by the vessel. The race to put stronger and more numerous lights onto the squid vessels was soon on, with individual lights as strong as 2kw soon becoming commonplace. Fleets resembling miniature cities now appear at sea, congregating in areas where squid are plentiful.
The Chokka fleet lies still from 15 October to 22 November as this is the closed season for commercial Chokka fishing. This protects the spawning Chokka and the beds of Chokka eggs. There is also currently a further closed season from around April to the end of June, the exact timing of this three month period decided by the industry.
This article was originally written by Professor Warwick Sauer – Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University
Branch, G.M., Griffiths, C.L.,Branch, M.L.,Beckley, L.E. (1994) Two Oceans A Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa.Cape Town & Johannesburg. David Philip.
Thank you to Jean Tresfon, Marine Conservation Photographer, for his permission to use his photos, taken in St Francis Bay.