Explainer: Is Octopus Farming Ethical?

A major seafood company is still moving ahead with its Canary Islands octopus farming operation despite ethical objections from researchers.

What Is Octopus Farming

Explainer Aquaculture Food

The global octopus trade is worth over $2.7 billion. Since 2020, these particular cephalopods have increasingly become the subjects of laboratory research and a new draw for tourists

In the Canary Islands, the multinational seafood company Nueva Pescanova plans to construct a facility to raise and slaughter as many as 1 million of these creatures each year for human consumption. But in light of the growing body of evidence suggesting these marine invertebrates are highly intelligent, more people are asking — can octopus farming ever be ethical?

How Are Octopuses Farmed?

Octopuses are consumed around the world. They are especially popular in European nations, including Spain and Italy, but are also imported by the United States, as demand is projected to grow throughout North America. China is the world’s largest producer. 

A number of factors have increased interest in octopus farms — rising demand for meat, their quick growth and short lifespans. However, there are several reasons why experts believe these complex cephalopods would not thrive in the industrial operations needed to produce them at scale. 

First, as the American Veterinary Medical Association points out, captive breeding of octopuses has proven to be extremely difficult — these animals have been known to find impressive ways to escape tanks and boats through extremely small crevices and even opening lids.

In the wild, a mother octopus will stop eating as she carefully tends to her thousands of eggs for as long as one year, a process that culminates in her death. In captivity, females have even been found to self-mutilate, apparently attempting to accelerate this final phase of life. 

Are Octopuses Farmed for Food?

To date, the majority of octopuses used for food are wild-captured. In 2020, the global catch totaled over 377,000 tons. While these creatures are not yet farmed especially for food, a number of companies and producers want to change that. 

The multinational company Nueva Pescanova announced a $74 million facility in February 2022.

Later that year, an investigation exposed illegal breeding at a Hawaii farm that was marketed as a petting zoo dedicated to conservation even as owners appeared to be forming a plan for future intensive farming operations.

And a lab in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico has also declared its intention to raise octopuses for food.

Where Are Octopus Farms Located? 

There are at least three facilities in the works that could or will become commercial octopus farms.

In Hawaii, an October 2022 investigation of Kanaloa Octopus Farm revealed a petting zoo operation that could become a farming operation. After touring the facility, Laura Lee Cascada of The Every Animal Project stated that babies bred by Kanaloa only survived around 13 days, as of 2022.

In January 2023, following campaigns by multiple animal protection groups, a cease-and-desist notice from the state of Hawaii declared that Kanaloa must not have octopuses under 1 pound and could not capture animals from the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area — a practice its owner has denied — but which a tour guide was filmed admitting to in the aforementioned investigation.

While the facility’s profit model was focused on tourism, this type of farm could lay the groundwork for an aquaculture operation. Kanaloa has reportedly called octopus farming a solution to overfishing of wild populations — and the farm’s reported end-goal was to determine how best to raise the animals in a controlled environment.

In the Canary Islands, Neuva Pescanova estimates that its planned Puerto de Las Palmas facility would produce around 3,000 tons of octopus meat per year. Tanks in the two-story building will hold 1,000 animals, with an estimated mortality rate of between 10 and 15 percent.

And in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, National Autonomous University of Mexico biologist Carlos Rosas leads a lab and community project that plans to one day raise and harvest octopuses for food.

Why Are Octopus Farms Controversial?

Research into octopus behavior has been steadily growing, with scientists gathering more evidence about their intelligence and capacity for suffering, as well as the complex lives they live in their natural environments. As a result, many animal experts have concluded that farming octopuses would be an inhumane practice.

There are other impacts to consider. Since aquaculture already causes environmental damage — adding commercial octopus farming to the mix without industry reform will likely only increase harm to local ecosystems. 

Is Octopus Farming Ethical?

Octopus farms raise many ethical questions:

Animal Suffering

Dr. Jennifer Mather, author of multiple studies on cephalopods, told VICE in 2015: “It’s probable that the octopus’s reaction to pain is similar to a vertebrate. They can anticipate a painful, difficult, stressful situation — they can remember it. There is absolutely no doubt that they feel pain.”

We now know even more about the octopus’s capacity for suffering, both physical and emotional. In a November 2021 analysis of over 300 studies, researchers wrote that because of the solitary nature of these creatures, they can become aggressive toward each o ther when kept in confinement, adding “we are convinced that high-welfare octopus farming is impossible.” 

Octopus Intelligence

Research shows that octopuses can solve problems and find their way through a maze. They are also able to recognize and remember others.

Each of an octopus’ eight tentacles has a brain, resulting in the ability of each of these arms to sense on its own, tasting and touching — even for a time after removal from the body — while the octopus is still able to control them.

Because they possess intelligence similar in some ways to that of humans, octopuses have been proposed by some researchers as an ideal test subject, but advocates believe that without protections the animals would suffer in labs just as they would on farms.

Octopus Sentience

A growing body of evidence has led some scientists to believe that octopuses possess sentience, the ability to consciously feel pain and emotions. Researchers have found that they have elements of a sense of self and can solve problems.

In 2021, the U.K. announced that octopuses, along with lobsters and crabs, would be included in protections under legislation widely known as the Sentience Bill. Jonathan Birch, a researcher who advised lawmakers said that for octopuses, the evidence of sentience was “particularly strong.”

The legal progress is encouraging to many animal advocates, but should a global commercial farming industry emerge, stronger and more widespread protections will be needed. And again, keeping an octopus in captivity is not as easy as it may seem, due to both their problem-solving and physical abilities. 

“They are very strong, and it is practically impossible to keep an octopus in a tank unless you are very lucky,” Dr. Mather has said. “Octopuses simply take things apart. I recall reading about someone who had built a robot submarine to putter around in a large aquarium tank. The octopus got a hold of it and took it apart piece by piece.”

Why Is Octopus Farming Bad for the Environment?

In addition to impacts on animal welfare considerations, experts warn that we must consider other hazards. An article published in 2019 in Issues in Science and Technology concluded: “Farming octopus is counterproductive from a perspective of environmental sustainability and misguided from a perspective of humane food production.”

Yet many forms of aquaculture have been on the rise. The industry, which provides around half of the world’s fish, has been proposed by some as a sustainable way to feed an ever-growing global demand for seafood. The same argument has been made in the case of farming octopuses, as their numbers decline in the wild.

But the increasingly intensive aquaculture industry is responsible for a wide range of environmental harms, putting new pressures on wild species and ecosystems. As a result, some experts warn that octopus farming will only exacerbate these problems.

Wild Fish Populations

Like some aquatic animals currently raised on farms, such as salmon, octopuses are carnivorous. This means that they would need to be fed vast amounts of fish if raised in large numbers.

Octopuses have a feed conversion rate of 3:1, which means that producing octopus meat requires three times that amount of food. Their diet will likely be made up of wild fish from stocks that are already depleted

Around 70 percent of fish meal and 90 percent of fish oil currently goes to the aquaculture industry.

Marine Ecosystems

Like factory farms on land, aquaculture facilities often incorporate antibiotics in animal feed in an attempt to prevent illness, but crowded and unhygienic conditions mean these farms are highly conducive to disease spread. 

These drugs, along with bacteria, parasites, waste and other substances can end up in local waters with a variety of negative effects. Antibiotics can make wild fish sick and disrupt food chains, while waste can encourage algal blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones devoid of life.

Environmental Pollution

As with other forms of aquaculture, octopus farms will likely add to environmental pollution.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from waste produced by the octopuses could leak into surrounding waters, potentially causing algal blooms and the death of many wild fish, decreasing biodiversity.

Pesticides may also be used to control the presence of parasites as they are with sea lice in salmon farms, and these can end up in the diets of wild fish.

Local Aquatic Animals

Research shows that fish in surrounding waters may consume feed pellets containing pesticides found near aquaculture farms. Over time, fish can suffer effects including neurotoxicity and disruption of endocrine function from substances “highly toxic” to them.

Farmed fish also sometimes manage to get out of their nets or tanks, bringing with them any parasites or disease they may be harboring as they interact with wild species. Given that octopuses are already known to be masters of escape, this will almost certainly be a problem with commercial octopus farming too. 

What Is the Case Against Octopus Farming?

Opponents of the commercial farming of octopuses argue that the highly intelligent and solitary marine animals, best suited to the depths of the sea, would not thrive in captivity — especially in the crowded tanks common to industrial aquaculture facilities.

Animal protection organizations around the world are urging the European Union to establish a ban on octopus farms before the massive facility proposed by Nueva Pescanova is approved and a precedent is set for other would-be producers.

Compassion in World Farming argues that the farm in the Canary Islands would be “cruel and unsustainable,” and that the killing of octopuses by submerging them in ice water without pre-stunning, as planned, is inhumane.

The 2019 Issues in Science and Technology article states that octopus is largely sold in “upscale outlets,” typically eaten by those who are food secure. “As consumers become increasingly concerned about animal welfare and sustainability, the case against octopus farming should only become stronger,” its authors write. “If society decides we cannot farm octopus, it will mean relatively few people can continue to eat them. But it does not mean that food security will be undermined; it will mean only that affluent consumers will pay more for increasingly scarce, wild octopus.”

Is There a Law To Stop Octopus Farms From Opening?

No law prohibiting the commercial farming of octopuses currently exists.

However, Washington state is currently considering a bill that would ban these facilities, with supporters of the legislation raising ethical and environmental concerns.

What You Can Do

As demand for octopus meat grows and our ocean is depleted of wild populations, the push for this potentially lucrative new commercial industry will grow, too. 

The Aquatic Life Institute offers several ways to add your voice, from signing a petition against the Canary Islands facility to urging policy change and spreading the word on social media. Plus, you can also join Lady Freethinker in supporting Washington state’s proposed ban on octopus farms.

Choosing to replace conventional seafood in your diet with plant-derived alternatives is another effective way to help aquatic life on a daily basis.

For more ways to make a difference for animals and the environment, visit Sentient Media’s regularly updated Take Action page.

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