Octopus farming: cold blooded (and cold-water) slaughter

Environment | Oceans

By Sophie Coxon, Kingfisher Writer

Published April 27th, 2023

A mysterious, fluid creature of curling arms and shifting colours, the octopus has long fascinated humans with its curious nature and unusual behaviour. Octopuses now face being intensively farmed, under unnatural and inhumane conditions, all in the name of economic gain.

Octopuses are a group of cephalopod species, similar to squid and cuttlefish, found throughout the Earth’s oceans. They are soft-bodied, with no inner shell or skeleton, and have sucker-covered arms which assist them in a variety of interesting and creative behaviours.

The only hard part of their form is the beak, which they use to pry open the shells of oysters and clams. This soft and malleable nature means they can fit through the smallest of holes, and are infamous for escaping from aquariums.

A common octopus blending into its surroundings through colour-changing chromatophores and textural papillae on its skin. | Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash

A diverse range of octopus species exist, including the dumbo octopus, a deep-sea species which thrives at depths of four kilometres; the blue-ringed octopus, a highly venomous species found across the reefs as tide pools of the Pacific; and the common octopus, which commonly appears on menus across the world.

Despite the huge diversity, all octopuses share one striking trait—uniquely high intelligence, not yet observed in other invertebrates.

Octopuses have a localised ‘sub-brain’ in each arm, enabling fine-tuned independent control, with a central brain that exerts overall control. They have been observed squeezing themselves inside glass bottles for protection, unscrewing lids and caps, and using tools to access food under lab experiments. It has also been proven that they can recognise individuals beyond their species, such as humans, and often form attachments or dislikes of particular staff in aquariums.

‘All octopuses share one striking trait—uniquely high intelligence.’

They can rapidly learn how to complete set tasks through observation, show the ability to plan ahead and consider future consequences. With 500 million neurons, octopuses are at an intelligence level equivalent to that of dogs and three-year-old children.

In the wild, species such as the common blanket octopus carry the severed tentacles of venomous Man O’ War jellyfish, using them as a protective weapon against predators. Veined octopuses are known to collect discarded coconut shells and empty bivalve shells to use as a protective den, darting inside and sealing them tightly at the onset of danger.

Others collect many small shell and rock fragments to cover their body in a mosaic of items, acting as an effective camouflage and armoury. They can also use their chromatophore-based colour changing abilities, and texture-forming papillae on the skin, to mimic other species, achieving cunning ambushes and escapes.

The blue ringed octopus is one of the most venomous organisms on earth. | Kris-Mikael Krister / Unsplash

The common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, is enjoyed as a delicacy across the globe, particularly in the Mediterranean and south-east Asia. Up until now, octopuses have been caught using trawl fishing, or by traps set with lures such as crab meat.

With the planet’s growing human population, and the increasing popularity of culinary trends such as sushi, tapas, and poke, the demand for octopus meat has rapidly risen. Overfishing, pollution, and ocean warming has caused huge declines in common octopus numbers, forcing prices up and making them even more desirable seafood specialities.

Rather than try to revert the damage and restore natural populations, a more ‘economically viable’ solution has been proposed—the world’s first commercial octopus farm. This has sparked a heated debate over the ethics of octopus aquaculture and scientists are not in favour. The farm is set to be built in Spain’s Canary Islands, under the aquaculture company Nueva Pescanova, under the guise that it will reduce fishing pressure on wild octopus.

‘Overfishing, pollution, and ocean warming causing huge declines in common octopus numbers.’

The commercial farm intends to produce 3,000 tonnes of octopus meat per year, reared in 1000 tanks at densities of up to 15 animals per cubic metre. As a solitary species, octopuses should not naturally come into contact with each other except to breed. Keeping them in these conditions will cause an unprecedented level of distress and likely promote adverse behaviour.

The slaughtering process will be via cold-water ice slurry exposure, which causes a slow and painful death. The company states that in-farm mortality rate is predicted to be between 10% and 15%, however when compared to salmon aquaculture which runs at similar densities and conditions, mortality will likely be much higher.

Researchers and conservationists have objected to the proposal, stating that it is ‘ecologically and ethically unjustifiable’ to keep such intelligent animals in these dense and unnatural conditions.

Octopus vulgaris is enjoyed as a delicacy in Mediterranean and Japan, featuring in many sushi and tapas dishes. | Alex Knight / Unsplash

The lack of cognitive stimulation with the painful slaughtering method, only adds to the inhumane nature of the intensive farming process. Over 300 studies have concluded that octopuses feel both pain and pleasure, and are sentient—intensive farming would cause immeasurable suffering.

Previous attempts at breeding octopuses in captivity for farming purposes have failed due to high mortality rates. The solitary and highly territorial temperament of octopuses makes them unfit for aquaculture conditions, with distress symptoms such as self-mutilation, aggression, and cannibalism occurring in captive octopuses kept at high density.

As intensive octopus farming is completely new, to both aquaculture and science. No laws currently exist to protect the species, enabling high risk of exploitation; octopus species do not qualify for animal welfare regulations, as these only apply to vertebrates.

‘Octopuses feel both pain and pleasure—intensive farming will cause immeasurable suffering’.

Further concern has been raised over the environmental impacts of the farm, such as pharmaceutical pollution, which may degrade natural marine ecosystems through wastewater outflow. Pollution caused by intensive aquaculture effluent will exacerbate already damaged natural marine ecosystems, putting further pressure on wild octopus populations, rather than alleviating it.

The intensive farming of the species will not halt the catch of wild octopus, and will likely have no positive effect on populations; at most it may decrease the market value, causing fishermen to increase their catch—putting further pressure on wild octopuses.

A heated debate has been sparked over the ethics of octopus aquaculture and scientists are not in favour. | Roger Darnell / Unsplash

The European Commission is reviewing its legislation regarding animal welfare, however the future is rocky and unclear for the octopus. Despite the growing concerns over food security and production demand, a vast variety of seafood-based protein sources are already available, more so since the rapid increase in fish and shrimp aquaculture.

This begs the question: do we really need to eat octopus at all? Avoiding octopus consumption, or at least intensive farming of these animals, could save a world of suffering and further environmental damage, which ultimately, should be a main goal behind any new technology or approach.

Featured Image: Lewis Burnett | Ocean Image Bank

Birch, J. et al. (2021) ‘Review of the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans, London School of Economics and Political Science.’ LSE. Available at: https://www.lse.ac.uk/business/consulting/reports/review-of-the-evidence-of-sentiences-in-cephalopod-molluscs-and-decapod-crustaceans [Accessed on March 26th, 2023].

Carbonaro, G. (2023) ‘Scientists slam 'cruel' plans for world's first Octopus Farm in Spain,’ euronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/02/24/an-environmental-disaster-europe-will-soon-be-home-to-the-world-s-first-octopus-farm [Accessed on March 26th, 2023].

Marshall, C. (2023) ‘World's first Octopus Farm Proposals Alarm Scientists,’ BBC News. BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-64814781 [Accessed on March 25th, 2023].

Octopuses, facts and information (n.d.) ‘Animals,’ National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/octopus-facts [Accessed: March 26th, 2023].

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