- Claire Marshall
- BBC Environment Correspondent
The news that the world’s first commercial octopus farm will soon become a reality has been greeted with dismay by scientists and conservationists. They argue that these sensitive and intelligent creatures, believed to be capable of feeling pain and emotions, should never be bred to be marketed as food.
Part of Stacey Tonkin’s job is to play with a giant Pacific octopus. When she lifts the tank top to feed the creature known as DJ, short for Davy Jones, he often comes out of his cave to see her and places his arms on the glass.
That is if you are in a good mood. Octopuses live to be four years old, so at one year DJ is the equivalent of a teenager, Stacey says.
“It definitely exhibits what would you expect from a teenager: some days he’s really grumpy and sleeps all day. Then other days he’s very playful and active and wants to run around his tank and show off. “
Stacey is part of a team of five keepers from the Aquarium in Bristol, England, and sees DJ react differently to each of them.
He says that with her he happily stands still and takes her hand with his tentacles.
The keepers feed the octopus with mussels, prawns, pieces of fish and crab. Sometimes they put the food in a dog toy for him to play with his tentacles and can practice your hunting skills.
Stacey says her color changes with her mood. “When he’s orange-brown, that’s when he’s active or playful. When he’s showing spots he’s more curious and interested. So he’ll be swimming orange and brown, then he’ll come and sit next to you and get all speckled with just look at you, which is quite surprising. “
He claims that the octopus shows its intelligence through its eyes. “When you look at him, and he looks at you, you can feel that there is something there.”
The level of consciousness that Stacey witnesses firsthand will be recognized in the legislation From United Kingdom through an amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sensitivity) Bill.
The change came after a team of experts examined more than 300 scientific studies and concluded that octopuses are “sentient beings” and there is “strong scientific evidence” that they can experience pleasure, excitement and joy, but also pain, anguish and hurt.
The authors said they were “convinced that high welfare octopus farming was impossible” and that the government in the future “might consider banning farmed imported octopus.”
But octopus tentacles are roasted in pans, rolled onto plates, and floated in soups all over the world, from Asia to the Mediterranean and increasingly in the United States. In South Korea the creatures are sometimes eaten alive.
The number of octopuses in the wild is decreasing and prices are rising. An estimated 350,000 tonnes are caught each year, more than 10 times that of 1950.
In this context, decades ago the race to discover the secret of captive octopus breeding.
It’s tough – the larvae only eat live food and need a carefully controlled environment.
The Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova (NP) appears to have won the competition against companies from Mexico, Japan and Australia.
He has announced that he will start commercialize farmed octopus next summer, to be sold in 2023.
The company was based on an investigation carried out by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography on the reproduction habits of the common octopus, the Octopus vulgaris.
NP’s commercial farm will be based inland, near the port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, according to PortSEurope.
The farm is reported to produce 3,000 tons of octopus per year. The company has been quoted as saying that this will help prevent so many wild octopuses from being caught.
Nueva Pescanova has refused to reveal details about the conditions in which the octopuses will be kept, despite numerous approaches from the BBC.
The size of the tanks, the food they will eat, and how they will be killed are secret.
The plans have been denounced by an international group of researchers as “ethically and ecologically unjustified”.
The campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), has written to the governments of several countries, including Spain, urging them to ban it.
Dr. Elena Lara, CIWF research director, is angry.
“They are amazing animals. They are lonely and very intelligent. So put them in sterile tanks without cognitive stimulation it is bad for them”.
She says that anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning 2021 documentary, My Octopus Teacher (“My teacher the octopus”), he will appreciate it.
Octopuses have large, complex brains. His intelligence has been proven in numerous scientific experiments.
They have been observed using coconuts and seashells to hide and defend themselves, and have shown that they can quickly learn set tasks.
They have also managed to escape from aquariums and steal from traps set by people who fish.
In addition, they do not have a skeleton to protect them and they are very territorial.
Therefore, they could easily be damaged in captivity, and if there were more than one octopus in a tank, experts say they could start eating each other.
If the octopus farm opens in Spain, it seems that the creatures raised there they would receive little protection under European law.
Octopus and other invertebrate cephalopods are considered sentient beings, but the EU law covering the welfare of farm animals only applies to vertebrates, creatures that have backbones.
Furthermore, according to CIWF, there is currently no scientifically validated method for their humane handling.
- Aquaculture is the term for raising aquatic animals for food.
- It is the fastest growing food producing sector in the world.
- The global aquaculture market is growing at around 5% annually and is projected to be worth nearly US $ 245 billion by 2027.
- Some 580 aquatic species are cultivated around the world.
- As the human population grows, global aquaculture could provide a vital source of food.
- Fish kept in captivity tend to be more aggressive and contract more diseases.
- The EU recently published guidelines recognizing “lack of good farming practices” and “research gaps” in the impact of aquaculture on public and animal health.
Humans and octopuses had a common ancestor 560 million years ago, and evolutionary biologist Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol also has concerns.
“We have an example of an organism that has evolved to have an intelligence that is extremely comparable to ours“, Explain.
Their problem-solving skills, playfulness, and curiosity are very similar to those of humans, Dr. Vinther says, and yet they are supernatural.
“This is potentially what it would look like if we ever encountered an intelligent alien from a different planet.”
Nueva Pescanova ensures on its website that it is “firmly committed to aquaculture [cultivo de mariscos] as a method for reduce pressure on fisheries and ensure sustainable, safe, healthy and controlled resources, complementing the fishing “.
But CIWF’s Dr. Lara maintains that NP’s actions are purely commercial and the company’s environmental argument is illogical. “It does not mean that fishermen will stop fishing [pulpos]”.
She argues that octopus farming could increase increasing pressure on wild fish populations.
Octopuses are carnivores and need to eat two to three times their own weight in food to live.
Currently, about a third of the fish caught worldwide is turned into food for other animals, and approximately half of that amount goes to aquaculture.
Farmed octopus could be fed with fish products from already overfished populations.
Dr. Lara is concerned that consumers who want to do the right thing may think that eating free-range octopus is better than eating wild-caught octopus.
“It is not more ethical at all: the animal is going to suffer all its life,” he says.
And a 2019 report led by New York University associate professor of environmental studies Jennifer Jacquet argues that banning octopus farming wouldn’t leave humans without enough to eat.
It will mean “just that wealthy consumers will pay more for an increasingly rare wild octopus,” he says.
The whole debate is fraught with cultural complexities.
Industrial agriculture on land has evolved differently around the world.
Pigs, for example, have been shown to be smart. So what is the difference between a factory farm pig that is used to make a bacon sandwich and a factory farm octopus that will then be cooked Galician style to make the typical dish?
Conservationists argue that the sensitivity of many farm animals was not known when intensive systems were established, and past mistakes should not be repeated.
Because pigs have been domesticated for many years, we have enough knowledge about their needs and we know how to improve their lives, says Dr. Lara.
“The problem with octopuses is that they are completely wild, so we don’t know exactly what they need or how we can provide a better life for them. “
Given everything we know about the intelligence of octopuses, and the fact that they are not essential for food safety, should a complex intelligent creature begin to be mass-produced for food?
“They are extremely complex beings,” says Dr. Vinther. “I think that as humans we have to respect that if we want to grow or eat them.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.