- By Claire Marshall
- BBC Correspondent for Environment and Rural Affairs
The news that the world’s first commercial octopus farm is about to become a reality has been met with dismay by scientists and conservationists. They claim that such intelligent and “sentient” creatures – believed to be capable of feeling pain and emotions – should never be bred for food.
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Playing with a giant Pacific octopus is part of Stacey Tonkin’s work. When she lifts the lid of the aquarium to feed the creature known as a DJ – short for Davy Jones – she often comes out of her cave to see him and sticks her arms through the glass. Well, if she’s in a good mood. Octopuses live about four years. At one year old, she is therefore at a teenage age.
“She definitely looks like what you’d expect from a teenager: some days she’s very moody and sleeps all day.
Stacey is part of a team of five aquarists at the Bristol Aquarium and discovers that DJ reacts differently to each of them. She says she willingly stays quiet and holds his hand with her tentacles.
Keepers feed the octopus mussels, shrimp, pieces of fish and crab. Sometimes they put food in a dog toy that the octopus can tease with its tentacles in order to exercise its hunting skills.
She says that the color of the octopus changes depending on its mood. “When she’s orange-brown, it’s more of a sense of activity or playfulness. Spotted, she’s in a curious, interested mood. So she navigates between orange and brown, then comes and sits next to you, gets all smeared and looks at you. you, which is amazing.”
Stacey says the octopus shows its intelligence through its eyes. “When you look at her, and she looks at you, you can feel like there’s something there.”
The level of awareness Stacey witnessed firsthand should be recognized in UK law through an amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sensitivity) Bill.
The move came after a team of experts combed through more than 300 scientific studies and concluded that octopuses were ‘sentient beings’ and there was ‘strong scientific evidence’ that they could experience pleasure, excitement and joy, but also pain, anguish and heartache. . .
The authors say they are “convinced that raising high-welfare octopuses is impossible” and that the government “may consider banning the import of farmed octopuses” in the future.
But octopus tentacles are boiling in pots, curling up on plates and floating in soups all over the world — from Asia to the Mediterranean, and increasingly in the United States. In South Korea, these 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 ten times the number of catches made in 1950.
In this context, the race to discover the secret of captive octopus reproduction has been going on for decades. It’s difficult: larvae only eat live food and need a carefully controlled environment.
Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova (NP) appears to have won the race ahead of companies from Mexico, Japan and Australia. It announced that it will start marketing farmed octopus next summer, to sell it in 2023.
The company relied on a survey carried out by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (Instituto Español de Oceanografia), which studied the breeding habits of the common octopus – Octopus vulgaris. According to PortSEurope, NP’s commercial farm will be installed inland, near the port of Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands.
The farm will produce 3,000 tons of octopus a year. The company said it would help end the harvest of octopus in the wild.
Nueva Pescanova declined to reveal details about the octopus’ condition, despite numerous approaches from the BBC. The size of the pools, the food they will eat and how they will be killed are all secrets.
The plans were denounced by an international group of researchers as “ethically and ecologically unjustified”. Campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) has written to governments in several countries, including Spain, calling for a ban on the project.
Dr. Elena Lara, head of research at the CIWF, is furious. “These animals are amazing animals. They are solitary and very intelligent. So putting them in sterile tanks without cognitive stimulation is bad for them.”
According to her, anyone who watched the 2021 Oscar-winning documentary – My Octopus Teacher – will understand this.
Octopuses have large, complex brains. Its intelligence has been proven by numerous scientific experiments. They have been observed using coconuts and shells for hiding and self-defense and have been shown to be able to learn specific tasks quickly. They also managed to escape aquariums and fly into traps set by fishermen.
Also, they don’t have a skeleton to protect them and are very territorial. They could therefore easily be damaged in captivity, and if there were more than one octopus in an aquarium, experts say they could start eating each other.
If the octopus farm opens in Spain, it appears the creatures raised there will receive little protection under EU law. Octopuses and other invertebrate cephalopods are considered sentient beings, but EU farm animal welfare legislation only applies to vertebrates, ie creatures that have a backbone. Furthermore, according to the CIWF, there is currently no scientifically validated method for their humane slaughter.
- Aquaculture is the term given to raising aquatic animals for food.
- It is the fastest growing food production sector in the world.
- The global aquaculture market is growing at around 5% a year and is expected to be worth nearly $245 billion (£184 billion) by 2027.
- About 580 aquatic species are cultivated worldwide.
- With the growth of the human population, global aquaculture could provide a vital source of food.
- Captive-bred fish tend to be more aggressive and contract more diseases.
- The European Union recently published guidelines recognizing “a lack of good agricultural practices” and “research gaps” on the impact of aquaculture on animal and public health.
Humans and octopuses shared a common ancestor 560 million years ago, and evolutionary biologist Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol is also concerned.
“We have the example of an organism that evolved to have an intelligence that is extremely comparable to ours.” Their problem-solving, fun, and curiosity skills are very similar to those of humans, says Dr. Vinther – and yet they are otherworldly.
“This is potentially what it would be like if one day we encountered an intelligent alien from another planet.”
Nueva Pescanova states on its website that it is “firmly committed to aquaculture [l’élevage de fruits de mer] as a method to reduce pressure on fisheries and ensure sustainable, safe, healthy and controlled resources in addition to fisheries”.
But Dr. The CIWF’s Lara says NP’s actions are purely commercial and the company’s environmental argument is illogical. “This does not mean that fishermen will stop fishing [les poulpes]”.
She says that octopus farming could add to increasing pressure on wild fish stocks. Octopuses are carnivores and must eat two to three times their weight in food to live. Currently, about a third of the fish caught on the planet is transformed into food for other animals, and almost half of this amount is destined for aquaculture. Thus, farmed octopuses can be fed fish products from stocks that are already overexploited.
Dr. Lara worries that consumers who want to make the right choice might think that eating farmed octopus is better than wild-caught octopus. “It’s nothing more ethical – the animal will suffer for a lifetime,” she says. A 2019 report led by Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, claims that banning octopus farming would not deprive humans of food. It would just mean that wealthy consumers would pay more for increasingly rare wild octopuses.
The whole debate is fraught with cultural complexities.
Industrial land farming has evolved differently across the world. Pigs, for example, have proven to be smart. So what’s the difference between a factory-raised pork that makes a bacon sandwich and a factory-raised octopus that goes into the Spanish dish Pulpo a la Gallega?
Conservationists say the susceptibility of many farm animals was not known when intensive systems were introduced and that past mistakes should not be repeated.
Because pigs have been domesticated for many years, we know enough 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 them with a better life.”
Given all we know about the intelligence of octopuses and the fact that they are not essential for food security, should an intelligent and complex creature start being mass-produced for food?
“They are extremely complex beings,” says Dr. Vinther. “I think as humans we have to respect that if we want to raise them or eat them.”