Underneath the sparkling blue water of Spain’s Canary Islands, a horrendous plan is taking shape that has sparked a global debate. Set to be opened in 2024, the world’s first indoor, large-scale octopus farm is being created. Before this, octopuses have only been captured in the wild. But their numbers in natural habitats are dwindling as a result of over-fishing.
The plan to farm octopuses has raised many concerns among scientists regarding the welfare of these intelligent creatures. Critics of octopus farming find the idea of raising such sentient animals for food as a barbaric practice. Despite the opinion of many critics and the cruelty behind hunting these intelligent beings, the demand for octopus is steadily on the rise. As a result, the number of wild-caught octopuses is steadily declining as global demand more than doubled from approximately 180,000 tons in 1980 to over 370,000 tons in 2019. The companies behind octopus aquaculture claim this is a step toward sustainable food production but this is far from the truth.
The Cruelty Behind Octopus Farms
Octopuses are solitary predators used to living in the dark, yet the octopus farm will house 3 million octopuses together in lit tanks that do not resemble their natural habitat. There is a distinct possibility that they will prey on each other under these circumstances. Despite these concerns, plans from the company Nueva Pescanova reveal that 10-15 octopuses would be housed in each large tank with a constant light source.
Scientific experts conclude, “Large numbers of octopuses should never be kept together in close proximity.” In the wild, they are fiercely territorial, agile hunters. Keeping them in these crowded conditions leads to stress, conflict, and a mortality rate of 10-15%, which is unacceptable in any farming. Food processing corporation Nueva Pescanova argues the opposite, however. “They state that ‘the company has achieved a level of domestication in the species and that they do not show important signs of cannibalism or competition for food.'”
Opponents of octopus aquaculture argue that it is cruel and immoral. Octopuses and other cephalopods possess a high level of intelligence and emotional capacity. Some researchers have found them to be at least as intelligent as cats. Octopuses need stimulation and an environment they can interact with. “They are shape-shifters to the extreme, can disappear in a cloud of ink, and can recognize human faces due to their forms of short and long-term memory. They have as many neurons as many mammals, and larger nervous systems than any other invertebrate.”
Understanding The Intelligence of Octopuses
Octopuses have been known to carry out many complex behaviors, use items in their environment as tools, and have even been seen successfully escaping complicated enclosures. The U.K. parliament has formally recognized the sentience of octopuses and other species, such as crabs and lobsters, within the 2022 Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act.
Some lawmakers have proposed banning the practice before it even gets started. “Speaking up about these concerns before octopus farming becomes a reality was part of the point. Our goal was to create that dialogue before octopus farming becomes embedded in our society,” says Jennifer Jacquet, Interdisciplinary Scientist at New York University.
Scientists continue to raise questions regarding the ethical and ecological problems that might arise from farming octopuses. Unfortunately, no current welfare rules regarding octopuses exist yet, mainly since octopuses have never been farmed commercially before.
Octopus Farming: Unsustainable and Horrific
Humans have been trying to breed octopuses in captivity for decades. Farming from birth to adulthood has been quite a challenge, and many wild octopus fisheries worldwide have collapsed due to over-fishing, largely to provide food for the captive, carnivorous octopuses.
When octopuses reach maturity, they are placed in ice-cold water at -3 degrees Celsius. This cold water, called “ice slurry,” will freeze the octopus to death. Approximately one million, or 3,000 tons, of these beautiful, unfortunate creatures meet this fate each year. More than 300 scientific studies show that octopuses feel both pleasure and pain, concluding that each of these deaths by freezing is slow, stressful, and painful.
Farming octopuses is ecologically inefficient according to scientists. Octopuses are kept in tanks filled with water piped in from the adjacent bay, and the wastewater is pumped back into the bay. While the companies claim that this will not cause any pollution being put back into the ocean, this seems unlikely.
The ethical considerations that will arise from trying to keep these highly intelligent animals in captivity should be the number one consideration. Octopuses should be treated as the sentient beings they are instead of a meaningless ingredient for a food recipe. Activists and scientists will continue to fight against the opening of this octopus farm and any others that come along.