An octopus aquaculture project in the Canary Islands would raise 3,000 tonnes of octopuses a year, meaning nearly 275,000 individuals would be killed each year.
As part of my research, I study the spirit and ethics of animals. The term “octopus culture” may bring to mind Octopolis and Octlantis, two wild octopus communities in Jarvis Bay, Australia.
In Octopolis, many octopuses share – and compete for – a few square meters of sea floor. In these aquatic cities, octopuses form dominance hierarchies and develop new behaviors: male octopuses fight for territory and, perhaps, for females, throwing objects and fighting.
Biologists were surprised to discover the existence of octopus communities. They have long been considered solitary animals that interact with each other in three specific contexts: hunting, flying and mating.
What Octopolis allows us to observe is that what happens in nature also exists in captive octopuses: when they live in a very dense captive environment, octopuses form dominance hierarchies.
In their struggle for power, males engage in a number of antagonistic behaviors, including throwing scallop shells in defense of their lair and rising to assume the appearance of a menacing vampire. Submissive octopuses display their submission by displaying light colors and assuming flattened body postures. In exchange for their efforts, dominant individuals seem to have access to the best burrows and females.
What can be observed in Octopolis and Octlantis constitutes an “octopus culture”. The idea of an animal culture came about after scientists discovered that in some groups, animals perform actions that would not be seen in other groups of the same species.
One of the first proponents of an animal culture was the Japanese primatologist Kinji Imanishi, who in the 1950s noticed that a group of Japanese monkeys on the island of Koshima washed sweet potatoes in water before eating them.
This was a new behavior not seen in other groups of apes, and observers were lucky to discover its origins. A monkey named Imo was the first to wash a potato in salt water and others quickly followed suit, which was then adopted by the entire community.
The notion of animal culture inspired much of the later work in Japanese primatology, but in Europe and North America it received little attention until 1999, after the publication of an article on culture in chimpanzees. Since then, evidence of culture – behaviors typical of a socially learned group – has been seen across the animal kingdom, including fish, birds and insects.
A new type of octopus
The proposal to set up an octopus farm will result in a new culture in octopuses, as when cultural animals come together, they inevitably create a society. It is also an opportunity to create a new type of octopus: the cultural behaviors associated with the captive environment will constitute a new environmental niche that will determine its evolution.
The farm animals we know well – such as Angus cows and Choctaw pigs – were domesticated and are totally different from the individuals from which they descend.
Many of our domestic animals could not survive without humans taking care of them. These include domestic rabbits, which evolved without the instincts or coat color of wild rabbits, elements that protect them from predators, sheep whose wool becomes very thick if not regularly shorn, and chickens raised for their meat. your chest is very heavy.
By starting an octopus farm, you create a new type of animal whose existence depends on humans. It’s not an idea to be taken lightly or a project you can responsibly try and then abandon if it’s too difficult or useless.
Managing octopus populations
There are many reasons to fear that octopus farms are difficult to manage. Unlike other farm animals, octopuses need their space. Octopolis is already a battleground of fighting octopuses; we can only imagine what it will be like with thousands of individuals.
Octopuses are sensitive – they are emotional animals that feel pain. A report commissioned by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs analyzed the scientific evidence of the presence of pain in cephalopod molluscs (octopus, squid and cuttlefish).
Sensitive animals used for food are protected by welfare laws and killed in a way that minimizes their pain. Current methods of killing octopuses include beating, brain cutting and asphyxiation. The report’s authors conclude that none of these methods are humane and recommend that octopus farming should not be practised.
Octopuses are experts at escape. The type of habitat they need is difficult to reach, especially if it is endowed with an enriched environment, as it is full of possible escape routes.
If you start an octopus farm and then abandon it, you can’t release thousands of domesticated octopus into the sea and hope they survive. The many expensive attempts to free Keiko, the orca who starred in the movie My Friend Willy, have taught us that successfully reintroducing a cultural animal into the wild is not easy. Even after we spent 20 million dollars, Keiko ended up dying in captivity.
The project of bringing together thousands of individuals in an octopus megalopolis would undoubtedly evolve octopus culture far beyond what can be found in the wild or in captivity. This would breed hundreds of thousands of Keiko, aquatic cultural animals caught in the wild and placed in captivity, and force them to live together and develop a new culture in what would surely be a violent slum.
Now that we know that octopuses feel emotions and have a culture, we are starting to rethink current intensive farming practices.
This is not the right time to propose such a project. We have to be judicious.