As the demand for their meat is spiking in the market, suppliers are investigating the possibility of octopus farming in order to preserve wild populations. However, as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, can we really subject these brainy cephalopods to captive farming?
The markers of intelligence can be quite tricky to spot in nonhuman animals. It's usually defined by characteristics such as the ability to acquire, store and retrieve memories, and compare past memories to inform future decisions. The identification of intelligence becomes even more complex when you consider animals with a completely different nervous system, which is what happens when you look at the behavior of an octopus through the eyes of a human.
The subclass Coleoidea is thought to be the brainiest bunch of the invertebrates, with genius members including cuttlefish, squid, and octopus. They’re a shining example of how advanced cognitive function can evolve as drivers such as the need for intelligent hunting tactics constitute evolutionary pressures substantial enough that a species must adapt its brainbox in order to survive.
Some of the skills that put this subclass at the top of the class include impressive spatial learning capacity, advanced navigational skills, and strategic hunting techniques. Octopuses in captivity have been known to repeatedly escape their tanks to visit a neighboring aquarium, chowing down on a few unsuspecting crabs before slithering back home.
For all their knowledge, octopuses unfortunately have another talent. Their meat is a delicious delicacy favored across the globe, having long been a staple in Mediterranean and East Asian cooking where it’s devoured for its flavor and high-protein, low-fat content. Overfishing of these once abundant animals has led to a dip in their wild populations, and while small artisanal fisheries are being employed they can’t keep up with the demand.
In order to boost stocks of this sought-after meat, some companies are turning to octopus farming. Unfortunately, keeping captive herds of octopuses isn’t easy. Octopus farming attempts in Australia saw good results for meat yield in small juveniles captured from the wild and grown in captivity, but couldn’t support the paralarvae, the earliest stage of an octopus. While the captured juveniles produce more meat than ocean-to-table fishing, the process still relies on harvesting wild populations and without a hatchery in place, the issue of dwindling stocks remains. The report stated: “Commonly observed high mortalities and poor growth in early stages of larval development are thought to be associated with nutritional imbalances of live prey, feed additives and enrichments.”
Even if we move beyond the poor hatchery outcome, octopus farming and aquaculture poses many environmental issues. Nitrogen and phosphorus released from feces and food decomposition are just a few of the pollutants known to escape fish farms, with further contamination coming as results of the algaecides, herbicides, and disinfectants needed to keep captive populations healthy. Furthermore, unlike above-ground herds of herbivorous cattle, octopuses are carnivores and rely on a diet high in protein, with crabs making up much of their diet in the wild. Feeding seafood with seafood creates a negative spiral of supply and demand, further increasing the need for aquaculture causing further harm to the environment. Currently, around 50 percent of farmed aquatic animals are used to make food for other captive animals, half of which are the result of aquaculture.
With the concept of aquaculture already complicating the issue, the octopus debate goes one step further as the prospect of battery farming such an intelligent, mobile, and interactive creature put forward powerful ethical arguments. In the essay The Case Against Octopus Farming, Jennifer Jacquet and a team of authors argues that octopuses are “particularly ill-suited to a life in captivity and mass-production, for reasons both ethical and ecological.” The essay goes on to list that the interaction between an octopus and its environment is so complex, with mimicry, play, and hunting in their species and terrain-rich intertidal habitats, that removing it would be taking away their “meaningful lives”. Confinement is known to cause extreme psychological distress to intelligent animals, with poorly kept zoo animals often exhibiting damaging behaviors such as pacing, self-mutilation, and regurgitation to name a few.
The debate rolls on as a team in Spain are currently making huge advances in octopus farming. The seafood firm Grupo Nueva Pescanova, building on work by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, claim they’ve not only managed to “close the lifecycle” of octopus, that is, raising new generations from captive individuals, but also found a way to extend their lifespan. In the wild, most octopuses die around their first birthday after breeding for the first time, with the females wasting away until their body eventually becomes food for her paralarvae. Grupo Nueva Pescanova report that they’ve successfully raised paralarvae from an octopus and found a way to support the young in a way that spares the life of the parent. Their next move is to test if they can raise a new generation from a female who is already two years old.
The environmental, ethical and logistical complications of octopus farming make it a seemingly poor fit for aquaculture, but with intelligent terrestrial animals such as pigs already in captive wide-scale farming, is it reasonable to imply one is worse than the other? Try asking your friends at your next social gathering, it’s a debate which is almost certain to put a heated stop to what was a nice dinner party.
Did you know that octopuses can dream? Plus find out what happened when scientists gave one some MDMA or see if you can guess what defines Octopus adorabilis (Hint: the clue is in the title).
[H/T: National Geographic]