One of the toughest issues about working with octopuses is their temper swings, says Dr Alex Schnell. They are often daring and gregarious someday, “after which the following day they refuse to come back out of their den”, says the behavioural ecologist, who research cephalopods.
Octopuses are complicated, clever creatures: they’ll change the color and texture of their pores and skin, disguise themselves, use instruments and squeeze into tiny areas. Their intricate lives burst into the general public consciousness in 2020 with the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Instructor, concerning the relationship between a film-maker and an octopus.
But whereas the frequent octopus, Octopus vulgaris, might have discovered its method into individuals’s hearts, it’s also now on the centre of plans by a Spanish fishing firm, Nueva Pescanova, to open the world’s first business octopus farm within the Canary Islands subsequent yr.
Demand for octopus meat is rising – the variety of octopuses caught within the wild doubled between 1980 and 2014 – however business octopus farming has proved elusive. From Spain and Mexico to Japan and Hawaii, corporations and scientists have been working for many years to unravel the myriad challenges it poses, together with preserving hatchlings alive, calculating tank situations and growing the correct feed. The prize is cultivating an animal that grows shortly, reproduces simply and instructions a excessive value.
Nueva Pescanova now seems on the verge of profitable this race with a facility that it claims will ultimately produce 3,000 tons of octopus meat a yr. The corporate argues that the farm is not going to solely fulfil the rising demand for octopus meat but in addition relieve strain on wild populations.
Greater than 350,000 tonnes of octopus are caught every year in international locations together with China, Japan and Mexico, and wild populations are believed to be quickly declining. Farming octopuses is important to “defend a species of nice environmental and human worth”, stated a Nueva Pescanova spokesperson.
Critics counter that cultivating these complicated creatures would trigger nice struggling and replicate the harms prevalent in land-based manufacturing facility farming. The UK recognised octopuses as sentient beings final yr.
Typically solitary animals, octopuses can grow to be aggressive when stored in shut proximity to others. Captive octopuses have been recognized to eat their very own arms, stated Dr Becca Franks, an environmental research analysis scientist at New York College, and they’re “famend escape artists”, suggesting they don’t like being stored in tanks.
They want stimulation, stated Schnell. “In the event that they’re stored in only a barren plastic tank, they’re going to really feel extraordinarily uncovered.”
Schnell was a part of a staff of scientists behind a 2021 London College of Economics report that reviewed greater than 300 scientific research on sentience in invertebrates, together with octopuses. It discovered “very robust proof” of sentience in octopuses and that they’ll really feel ache and misery, concluding: “We’re satisfied that high-welfare octopus farming is unattainable.”
Whereas cows, pigs and different farmed animals are additionally sentient, way more is understood about their welfare wants, stated Schnell. There are not any behavioural proxies for measuring octopus welfare, she stated, and growing one is tough due to the numerous shifts of their behaviour from daily.
Schnell is especially involved about how the octopuses could be killed. “There’s no dependable humane slaughter technique that might be carried out commercially on a big scale,” she stated. A wide range of strategies are used to kill octopuses caught within the wild, together with clubbing, slicing their brains and asphyxiation in a internet.
Nueva Pescanova stated its facility could be “on the forefront of greatest practices in animal welfare and environmental sustainability” however wouldn’t specify how large the tanks could be nor how densely the octopuses could be stored, nor how its slaughter course of would “keep away from any ache or struggling”, because it has claimed.
Carlos Rosas, a biologist on the Nationwide Autonomous College of Mexico who’s working with Nueva Pescanova, believes welfare considerations are a “distortion”.
“We are attempting to supply the animals the very best surroundings as a result of we’re on the lookout for development,” he stated. Rosas makes use of tubes, rocks and synthetic grasses in tanks at his small-scale demonstration farm in Yucatán to imitate extra pure situations. His octopuses by no means escape, he stated.
Whether or not these situations could be replicated on the industrial scale proposed by Nueva Pescanova is unclear, Rosas stated. He believes octopus farming can supply financial alternatives – “in Mexico, aquaculture is an alternate for poor people who find themselves residing on the coasts” – and echoes Nueva Pescanova’s argument about relieving strain on wild shares.
Nonetheless, claims that farming can stop overfishing are disputed. A 2019 examine concluded that aquaculture did little to offset the harms of untamed fishing and will even result in a larger demand for seafood.
The easiest way to alleviate strain on wild shares could be to extend costs and consider octopus meat as a delicacy, stated Schnell.
The farms may additionally nonetheless require wild-caught fish to feed the octopuses, additional including to strain on the oceans. “The trade actually has to justify farming carnivores, as a result of this – from a sustainability perspective – makes zero sense,” stated Jennifer Jacquet, affiliate professor of environmental research at New York College.
In February, dozens of animal rights activists, organised by Spain’s Animal Rights get together (Pacma), gathered within the Canary Islands to protest towards the brand new farm. “It’s an apparent injustice to open a spot that exploits such an exceptionally clever animal,” stated Ana Béjar of Pacma.
“You might have this species that has truly been thanked on the Baftas,” stated Jacquet, “after which you will have this push, I imply actually large push … to farm this animal.”