Educational Series: Cruel Octopus Farms Need to be Stopped Before They Start

By Nick Engelfried
On Spain’s Canary Islands, an international seafood company wants to build the world’s first large industrial octopus farm, raising and slaughtering animals widely considered to be the world’s most intelligent invertebrates. Octopuses, which are solitary creatures in the wild, would be kept in tanks with dozens grouped together in close quarters, conditions that could lead to aggression and cannibalism. When the time comes for the animals to be killed and sold as seafood, they would be placed in a slurry bath of ice flakes and cold water whose temperature would be gradually lowered below freezing, subjecting the animals to slow and potentially agonizing deaths.

Animal rights organizations have called the proposed treatment of farmed octopuses cruel, while scientists have raised concerns about the capacity of these intelligent animals for suffering. There have even been mass protests against octopus farming as public backlash mounts over the idea of raising another animal under inhumane conditions in order to produce what is largely a luxury seafood item.

Despite being radically different from humans and other mammals, octopuses are renowned for possessing an intelligence that at times seem eerily like our own. They learn quickly, use tools, and even construct what appear to be decorative “gardens” out of rocks. There is strong evidence to suggest octopuses experience pain, pleasure, and perhaps even affection. They seem to exhibit curiosity and playfulness–hallmarks of intelligence more commonly associated with certain mammals and birds. All of this has added to the sense of alarm many people feel at the prospect of these creatures being raised for food under what are essentially factory farm-like conditions.

Humans have been eating octopuses for thousands of years, with coastal Indigenous peoples in different parts of the world hunting them alongside other types of wild seafood. Today, octopuses are still widely eaten in places like Japan, Mexico, and Europe’s Mediterranean region. However, while a long tradition of consuming wild-caught octopuses exists in many cultures, up to now no one has farmed them for food on a large scale–partly because the eight-legged animals are notoriously difficult to raise in captivity.

Newly born octopuses–known and larvae–only eat live food and have very specific environmental requirements. Yet, as our understanding of octopus lifecycles has increased, raising them in captivity has become increasingly feasible. Now, the Spanish seafood giant Nueva Pescanova is awaiting government permission to build the world’s first major octopus farm on the Canary Islands. The facility could eventually slaughter a million animals per year to produce 3,000 tons of octopus meat for sale on the international market.

“In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, ethical concerns, and global opposition, creating the world’s first [major] octopus farm is a perilous path we must not tread,” read a recent statement from Keri Tietge, Octopus Project Consultant for the group Eurogroup for Animals. “Octopuses, solitary in nature, and with extremely complex behaviors, simply do not suit intensive farming conditions.”

No company has yet raised captive octopuses on the scale Nueva Pescanova is proposing. However, there has been at least one apparent attempt at octopus farming for profit in the United States–while in other parts of the world, like Japan, the idea has attracted substantial attention. This means if Nueva Pescanova’s project goes forward, it could provide a template for similar projects in other parts of the world.

In January of last year, the first and so far only U.S. octopus farm shut down in Hawaii. Before closing its doors for good, the Kanaloa Octopus Farm became mired in allegations of malpractice and misleading the public. Its owner, Jacob Conroy, claimed to be operating a research facility that contributed to conservation efforts. However, investigators affiliated with animal rights groups assert that there is scant evidence that the farm was engaged in meaningful scientific research. What it did do was offer the tourists the chance to interact with captive octopuses, charging $50 per visitor. While the farm claimed not to sell octopuses for consumption, animal rights groups allege that Conroy’s statements show the intent from the beginning was to eventually raise octopuses for high-end seafood.

Other accusations against Kanaloa include that it captured wild octopuses it claimed were “rescued” from fishing vessels, and that octopuses died after escaping from poorly-secured tanks. These reported scandals contributed to Kanaloa shutting down, but the controversies surrounding the facility suggest the kinds of problems that could emerge at other octopus farming projects in the future. It seems an inauspicious start to what some seafood companies see as a burgeoning new global industry.

Supporters of octopus farming say the practice could alleviate pressure on wild populations, which have suffered in recent years because of increased demand for their meat. However, there is little concrete evidence to suggest industrial-scale breeding of other marine animals has benefitted wild members of the species. In fact, farming may even have a negative effect by helping to establish a permanent market for the species in question–which in turn creates a greater incentive to hunt wild individuals.

In past centuries, octopuses in many parts of the world were hunted as part of subsistence hunter-gatherer cultures that harvested local seafood in a sustainable manner. Today, however, octopus is more often used as an ingredient in high-end seafood, with demand for octopus meat increasing as incomes have risen in parts of the world where it is popular. This raises the ethical question of whether it makes sense to develop a new industry to breed an intelligent animal in cramped, unnatural conditions in order to serve demand for a luxury product?

Opposition to octopus farming is already having an effect in some parts of the world. Some European governments have expressed skepticism about the practice. In the United States, the lower house of the Washington State legislature recently passed a bill that would preemptively ban octopus farming in the state. Meanwhile, as of now, the Nueva Pescanova’s proposed octopus farm in the Canary Islands has yet to receive all the government permits it needs before construction can begin. This means animal lovers still have a chance to stop the octopus farming industry before it takes off.

How policymakers and the public deal with the question of whether to allow this controversial industry to move forward over the next few years may determine whether octopus farming takes root and spreads around the world. It will also decide whether millions of some of the ocean’s most intelligent animals are subjected to lives of potential abuse and confinement–only to eventually suffer slow deaths by freezing.

Photo credit: MathieuTTL

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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