One of the hardest things about working with octopuses is their mood swings, says Dr Alex Schnell. They can be bold and gregarious one day, “and then the next day they refuse to come out of their den”, says the behavioral ecologist, who studies cephalopods.
Octopuses are complex, intelligent creatures: they can change the color and texture of their skin, disguise themselves, use tools and squeeze into tiny spaces. Their intricate lives burst into the public consciousness in 2020 with the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, about the relationship between a film-maker and an octopus.
Yet while the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, may have found its way into people’s hearts, it is also now at the center of plans by a Spanish fishing company, Nueva Pescanova, to open the world’s first commercial octopus farm in the Canary Islands next year.
Demand for octopus meat is increasing – the number of octopuses caught in the wild doubled between 1980 and 2014 – but commercial octopus farming has proved elusive. From Spain and Mexico to Japan and Hawaii, companies and scientists have been working for decades to solve the myriad challenges it poses, including keeping hatchlings alive, calculating tank conditions and developing the right feed. The prize is cultivating an animal that grows quickly, reproduces easily and commands a high price.
Nueva Pescanova now appears on the verge of winning this breed with a facility that it claims will eventually produce 3,000 tons of octopus meat a year. The company argues that the farm will not only fulfill the growing demand for octopus meat but also relieve pressure on wild populations.
More than 350,000 tons of octopus are caught each year in countries including China, Japan and Mexico, and wild populations are believed to be rapidly declining. Farming octopuses is necessary to “protect a species of great environmental and human value”, said a Nueva Pescanova spokesperson.
Critics counter that cultivating these complex creatures would cause great suffering and replicate the harms prevalent in land-based factory farming. The UK recognized octopuses as sentient beings last year.
Generally solitary animals, octopuses can become aggressive when kept in close proximity to others. Captive octopuses have been known to eat their own arms, said Dr Becca Franks, an environmental studies research scientist at New York University, and they are “renowned escape artists”, suggesting they do not like being kept in tanks.
They need stimulation, said Schnell. “If they’re kept in just a barren plastic tank, they’re going to feel extremely exposed.”
Schnell was part of a team of scientists behind a 2021 London School of Economics report that reviewed more than 300 scientific studies on sentience in invertebrates, including octopuses. It found “very strong evidence” of sentience in octopuses and that they can feel pain and distress, concluding: “We are convinced that high-welfare octopus farming is impossible.”
While cows, pigs and other farmed animals are also sentient, much more is known about their welfare needs, said Schnell. There are no behavioral proxies for measuring octopus welfare, she said, and developing one is hard because of the significant shifts in their behavior from day to day.
Schnell is particularly concerned about how the octopuses would be killed. “There’s no reliable humane slaughter method that could be performed commercially on a large scale,” she said. A variety of methods are used to kill octopuses caught in the wild, including clubbing, slicing their brains and asphyxiation in a net.
Nueva Pescanova said its facility would be “at the forefront of best practices in animal welfare and environmental sustainability” but would not specify how big the tanks would be nor how densely the octopuses would be kept, nor how its slaughter process would “avoid any pain or suffering”, as it has claimed.
Carlos Rosas, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who is working with Nueva Pescanova, believes welfare concerns are a “distortion”.
“We are trying to offer the animals the best environment because we are looking for growth,” he said. Rosas uses tubes, rocks and artificial grasses in tanks at his small-scale demonstration farm in Yucatán to mimic more natural conditions. His octopuses never escape, he said.
Whether these conditions would be replicated at the industrial scale proposed by Nueva Pescanova is unclear, Rosas said. He believes octopus farming can offer economic opportunities – “in Mexico, aquaculture is an alternative for poor people who are living on the coasts” – and echoes Nueva Pescanova’s argument about relieving pressure on wild stocks.
However, claims that farming can prevent overfishing are disputed. A 2019 study concluded that aquaculture did little to offset the harms of wild fishing and may even lead to a greater demand for seafood.
The best way to relieve pressure on wild stocks would be to increase prices and view octopus meat as a delicacy, said Schnell.
The farms may also still require wild-caught fish to feed the octopuses, further adding to pressure on the oceans. “The industry really has to justify farming carnivores, because this – from a sustainability perspective – makes zero sense,” said Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at New York University.
In February, dozens of animal rights activists, organized by Spain’s Animal Rights party (Pacma), gathered in the Canary Islands to protest against the new farm. “It is an obvious injustice to open a place that exploits such an exceptionally intelligent animal,” said Ana Béjar of Pacma.
“You have this species that has actually been thanked at the Baftas,” said Jacquet, “and then you have this push, I mean really big push … to farm this animal.”