Octopus farms raise huge animal welfare concerns

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Credit: Henner Damke/shutterstock

When you imagine the world of an octopus, you might just see a curious creature in a complex underwater environment.

Yet the reality of life for some octopuses is existence in a sterile tank, inevitably surrounded by humans and other octopuses. It’s the dark world of octopus farming – and soon new commercial farms could be springing up.

Recently, a Spanish company announced its intention to open a new industrial octopus farm, with the aim of producing 3,000 tons of octopus per year. This raises huge concerns for animal welfare, as there is no doubt that octopuses are complex and intelligent animals.

Wild octopuses are masters of camouflage, quickly changing their skin patterns to blend in with their background. Sometimes they cover themselves with shells or even wear coconut shells to hide from predators. And they are well known escape artists in captivity, able to squeeze into extraordinarily small spaces.

They can even have a mischievous streak, with frequent reports of octopuses squirting water at unsuspecting visitors and carers. An octopus in Germany was notorious for repeatedly squirting water over the lights, apparently aware that doing so would short out the electricity and cause a commotion.

In the laboratory too, they have shown themselves gifted for solve mazes and other puzzles to acquire a food reward.

And octopuses aren’t just smart. They are also sensitive, capable of experiencing feelings such as pain and pleasure.

We recently produced a report for the British government, after analyzing more than 300 scientific studies. We found strong evidence for susceptibility in cephalopod molluscs (including octopus, squid and cuttlefish) and decapod crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters).

For many scientists, our findings have only reaffirmed what they already believed: that octopuses are conscious animals with feelings and an inner life, just like vertebrates.

For us, all this does not fit well with the idea of ​​octopus farming.

While octopus has long been an occasional menu item for many, the demand for octopus meat is grow fast. And that led to proposals to start cultivating octopus on an industrial scale. In addition to Spain, there are similar efforts in Mexico, Chile, China and Japan.

Big ethical concerns

Octopuses are attractive candidates for commercial aquaculture, due to their high value, rapid growth and rapid reproduction.

But when we worked on our report, we assessed some of the biggest risks to octopus welfare, and octopus farming was high on our list. The possibility of poor well-being is extremely worrying, especially since there are no protection for farmed octopus under animal welfare legislation around the world.

Octopus farms raise huge animal welfare issues - and they're also not sustainable

Octopuses have different moods and can be playful and mischievous. Credit: Vladimir Wrangel/shutterstock

Octopuses have several characteristics that make them particularly unsuitable for intensive farming.

They are soft-bodied, with skin that is easily damaged by rough handling or collisions with tank walls or furniture, especially when running away from perceived threats – their usual flight response. It is a vulnerable animal that prefers to hide and needs shelter to feel safe.

As solitary animals (with very few exceptions), they are often aggressive and territorial, meaning they tend to react poorly to the company of other octopuses, with common cannibalism for many octopus species. The stress of overcrowding can even cause octopuses to resort to self-cannibalism– they literally eat their own arms.

And since they are behaviorally and cognitively complex, they require complex environments that provide stimulation and opportunities to engage in natural behaviors.

To make matters worse, there is currently no recognized humane octopus slaughter method that would be feasible on a large commercial scale. For these reasons, we concluded in our report that we have “very high confidence that commercial breeding of high-welfare cephalopods is currently impossible.”

In short, we had little doubt that this is a bad idea.

It’s unbearable too

Proponents of octopus farming claim that the practice has environmental benefits. They say it’s a sustainable production method that will reduce pressure on wild octopus populations.

Currently, this is the case around 350,000 tons of wild octopuses are harvested each year. And if the demand continues to increase, this harvest should also increase.

But we are not convinced by this claim of durability.

One problem is that octopuses are carnivores, which means they need fish or other seafood such as fishmeal or fish oil in their diet. These products are still frequently harvested from the ocean. And since octopuses have a food conversion rate of about three to one (meaning it takes about three kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of octopus), this is a very inefficient use of resources.

A second problem is that it is by no means clear that switching to aquaculture will reduce the pressure on wild stocks. It is just as likely that octopus farming will simply reduce prices and increase demand, as seen in fish farming.

So if we are serious about protecting wild octopus populations, we must move beyond a false choice between devastating overfishing and industrialized agriculture.

The focus should be on reducing consumption rather than trying to shift demand from wild to captive stocks – and to do this we need to be wary of quick fixes such as artificially raising prices. This can lead to undesirable effects, such as creating a perceived scarcity that drives consumer desire – think here of “luxury” products such as shark fins.

To find the best ways to profoundly change our eating habits, they need to be designed and tested by behavior change experts so that we can robustly scale demand. And there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Approaches may need to vary across cultures and consumer groups.


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