There was a time when the term “farmed animal” always meant a land animal such as pigs, cows, chickens, or geese. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, the practice of farming animals has extended to sea creatures and other aquatic animals. People now farm crustaceans and fishes of several species, in factory farms that cause the same — or even more — suffering than the intensive industrial operations of the dairy, egg, and meat industries.
Molluscs such as mussels have also been farmed for some time, but only until relatively recently, the idea of farming octopuses has begun to have some traction. In recent months, the project of creating the first large-scale octopus farm in the Spanish autonomic region of the Canary Islands has been hitting headlines. So, unfortunately, unless it is stopped, octopuses may now join the sad list of farmed animals.
Farming any animal is an act of cruelty, so even without knowing anything about octopuses, we know that farming them will be cruel. But science already knows quite a bit about these extraordinary animals, enough to be certain that they will suffer a great deal on farms.
Who Are the Octopuses?
Octopuses are a type of mollusc of the Class Cephalopoda (like squid, cuttlefish and nautiloids). They have soft bodies and eight limbs with suction cups. They have two well-developed eyes (very similar to those of vertebrates) and a beaked mouth at the centre point of the eight limbs. They have a siphon used for respiration and locomotion purposes (by expelling a jet of water that propels them).
They are quite amazing creatures. Octopuses have excellent vision because they have big eyes with camera-like lenses, like humans, but unlike us, they can see polarised light. Sandbird octopuses (Octopus aegina) can see in colour but the Common Octopus (O. vulgaris) cannot. They have chromatophores in their skin that can respond to light independently of the eyes to allow octopuses to change colour and camouflage themselves. They can match the colours and textures of their surroundings, enabling them to become almost invisible.
Their arms are very flexible and can regrow if cut. They have many suction cups that allow them to climb surfaces, and they have chemoreceptors in the cups so they can taste what they touch.
The 300 species or so of octopuses live in coral reefs, pelagic waters, and the seabed of every ocean (and many seas), but most have very short lifespans (some species complete their lifecycles in only six months). In most species, the male uses a specially adapted arm called a hectocotylus to deliver a bundle of sperm directly into the female’s mantle cavity, and then he dies soon after, while the female deposits fertilised eggs in a den and cares for them until they hatch (she also dies soon afterwards). Most young octopuses hatch as paralarvae and are planktonic for weeks to months, depending on the species and water temperature. The Giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), one of the two largest species of octopus, usually lives for three to five years,
There is no agreement if octopuses are technically territorial (which means they fight to defend a specific well-defined territory) but they generally remain in a home range where they have dens they use for resting and they chase intruders away from their patch. Octopuses are predators, mostly eating crustaceans, polychaete worms, and other molluscs such as whelks and clams. They use camouflage to ambush prey, and they often bring the animals they catch to their den where they can eat safely.
When they are attacked by predators, they can swim away after expulsing some black ink to confuse the predator and hide their escape. They can also use camouflage, threat displays, and hide in small cavities to avoid capture. Octopuses are mostly solitary animals who like to live on their own.
The Recognised Sentience of Octopuses
Although several old-fashioned scholars disagree, all molluscs are sentient beings, but the sentience of octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid has already been recognised by most reputable scientists. The European Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used in scientific procedures includes “any live cephalopod”, meaning that over 700 species of cuttlefish, squid, octopuses, and nautiloids are protected from some scientific experiments due to their sentience. Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and some states of Australia also protected them. In 2022, octopuses and Decapod Crustaceans became the first invertebrates to be officially considered sentient beings under UK law.
It should be clear to anyone who understands animal behaviour that all animals but the sea sponges are sentient beings, but this does not mean that they all have consciousness like ours, which is a more sophisticated state of awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings. However, octopuses are also considered to have consciousness according to the 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness.
This is not surprising. The nervous system of cephalopods is the most complex of all invertebrates. They have a well-developed brain, part of it in the head and the rest spread among their tentacles. All cephalopods have a brain-to-body weight ratio comparable to some vertebrates but organised very differently, as 40% of an octopus’s neurons are in a central brain while 60% are in the eight arms.
Octopus brains have forms of short-term and long-term memory, the ability to recognise people, and versions of sleep. Octopuses can solve complex mazes and complete tricky tasks to get food rewards, so it is abundantly clear that they are not only conscious sentient beings but also very intelligent. Octopuses have been trained to distinguish between different shapes and patterns, and they can also play. Interestingly, they have been caught dreaming (you can tell by their changes in colour while they sleep). One study found that octopuses retained knowledge of how to open a screw-top jar for at least five months.
As with any sentient being, octopuses do not like to be kept in captivity, which they often show by escaping from the tanks where they are kept. There have been many spectacular escapes from aquaria reported in the press.
In 2021, the London School of Economics compiled a “Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans,” based on analysing over 300 scientific papers. To evaluate sentience, they used the following criteria: 1) possession of nociceptors, 2) possession of integrative brain regions, 3) connections between nociceptors and integrative brain regions, 4) responses affected by potential local anaesthetics or analgesics, 5) motivational trade-offs that show a balancing of threat against opportunity for reward, 6) flexible self-protective behaviours in response to injury and threat, 7) associative learning that goes beyond habituation and sensitisation, and 8) behaviour that shows the animal values local anaesthetics or analgesics when injured. The authors concluded the following regarding cephalopods: “There is very strong evidence of sentience in octopods. We have either high or very high confidence that octopods satisfy criteria 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8, and medium confidence that they satisfy criterion 5.”
The World’s First Big-Scale Commercial Octopus Farm
In December 2021, the Spanish multinational, Nueva Pescanova (NP) announced that it would start marketing farmed octopus in the Summer of 2022, to sell their flesh in 2023. Although the project has now been delayed, it has not been cancelled and it continues development. If it goes ahead (and so far it looks like it will, as the authorities are not opposed to it) it may become a very big-scale intensive farm, keeping around one million animals.
NP’s commercial farm will be based at the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. According to PortSEurope, the company has invested over €50 million in a plant to produce 3,000 tonnes of flesh from killed octopuses per year, equivalent to 10% of the catches of the cephalopod made each year by the Spanish fleet. How they were planning to keep the animals was kept secret for many months, but many scientists and conservationists were sure they were likely to suffer their captive conditions as octopuses are very intelligent sentient creatures able to feel pain and emotions. Additionally, other animals will suffer, because, being carnivores, octopuses need to eat two to three times their weight in food to live, and many other animals will need to be killed to feed them.
Dr Elena Lara, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF)’s research manager, said to the BBC in 2021: “These animals are amazing animals. They are solitary and very smart. So to put them in barren tanks with no cognitive stimulation, it’s wrong for them.” Regarding whether farming them is better than catching them in the wild, she said: “It’s not more ethical at all – the animal is going to be suffering its entire life.”
We now know more details about the plans for this project. The confidential planning proposal documents from the company were obtained by the campaign organisation Eurogroup for Animals in March 2023. We now know that Nueva Pescanova estimates that there will be “a mortality rate of 10-15%, that the octopuses would be kept in tanks with other octopuses (at times under constant light), in around 1,000 communal tanks in a two-storey building, and that they would be killed by being put in containers of freezing water kept at -3C.
The initial breeding group of 100 octopuses (70 males and 30 females) would be taken from Pescanova Biomarine Centre, a research facility, in Galicia, northern Spain.
If the farm goes ahead in Spain, the unfortunate animals bred and kept there would receive little protection under European law, as although they are considered sentient beings, EU law covering animal welfare for farmed animals is only applied to vertebrates.
There have been other octopus farms built in other parts of the world at a much smaller scale, and some were almost experimental and more like an aquarium than a farm. For instance, the Kanaloa Octopus Farm (KOF) was an octopus zoo which claimed to be a conservation research facility. The so-called farm opened in 2015 but initially claimed it did not raise octopuses for consumption. However, in 2017, the founder said his goal was for the farm “to become a production facility that can provide restaurants with a sustainable option for locally sourced octopus.” According to animal rights investigators, Kanaloa routinely violated Hawaii’s conservation rules and mistreated the animals in its care. It is no longer operating in any capacity at the Hawaii Ocean Science & Technology Park, and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) has chosen not to renew its rental agreement.
However, sooner or later commercial farming of octopuses will also be developed beyond Spain. Octopus farming has already been tried in Italy and Australia, and a farm in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico has reportedly successfully farmed Octopus maya. Chile and Japan are also trying, and in China, up to eight different species of octopus are now being experimentally farmed.
The Suffering of Farmed Octopuses
People have been trying to farm octopuses and failing for decades. As early as 1977, Roger T. Hanlon wrote a scientific paper titled “Laboratory Rearing Of The Atlantic Reef Octopus, Octopus Briareus Robson, And Its Potential For Mariculture,”, in which he described that the main problems to be overcome in octopus farming are “cannibalism, containment, dependence upon live food and the death of gravid females before laying second generation eggs in the laboratory.” It seems that, after decades of experiments with unfortunate octopuses, Nueva Pescanova has now found a way to overcome these obstacles (most likely at the expense of the octopuses’ welfare). Spanish production of the common octopus now occurs experimentally in tanks on land, in open-ocean net pens, and on “ranches” where wild-caught octopuses are raised in captivity.
As octopuses are very intelligent the likely barren tanks they will be kept in farms will likely cause them zoochosis, the general term to describe mental problems caused by life in captivity, characteristic of many zoo animals. Also, as they are solitary and have territories in the wild, being forced to live together in other tanks in cramped conditions will make the problems worse. As the Spanish farm has not been finished and is not accessible to the public for scrutiny, we do not know the actual conditions all the octopuses will be kept in, but, like in all factory farms, they will be poor and aimed at high productivity, not high welfare.
But we do know how the octopuses are going to be killed in the farms. Recent studies have shown that killing fishes by submerging them in “ice slurry”, the method chosen by the Spanish farm, causes a slow, stressful death. The World Organisation for Animal Health says it “results in poor fish welfare” and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is proposing a ban unless fish are stunned beforehand. Prof. Peter Tse, a cognitive neuroscientist at Dartmouth University, told the BBC referring to octopuses killed in this way that “to kill them with ice would be a slow death … it would be very cruel and should not be allowed.”
Jonathan Birch, the associate professor at the London School of Economics who led the review mentioned earlier, told to the BBC that high-welfare octopus farming is “impossible” and that killing in ice slurry “would not be an acceptable method of killing in a lab”. He also said, “Large numbers of octopuses should never be kept together in close proximity. Doing this leads to stress, conflict and high mortality … A figure of 10-15% mortality should not be acceptable for any kind of farming.”
Like other carnivorous aquaculture, octopus farming would increase pressure on wild aquatic animals as the octopuses need to be fed other animals. Octopuses have a food conversion rate of at least 3:1, meaning that they need to be fed three times more weight of flesh of other animals than their own weight. This means that octopus farms are bad news for the oceans and the environment too.
Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, said this about octopus farming: “The farming of octopuses seems completely at odds with everything we understand about this species and everything we know that is morally and ethically right.”
Lawmakers in the US state of Washington have proposed banning farming octopuses before it even starts in their state. This bill is still at the committee stage. However, no such political moves can be seen in the countries that are close to building big-scale octopus farms.
In the end, we would not be talking about the evils of octopus farming if people did not eat octopuses. Millions of octopuses who, together, weigh around 350,000 metric tonnes, are caught each year, which is putting pressure on natural populations, and this is why the animal agriculture industry wants to farm then now. Meat eaters and pescatarians are driving this demand (which is growing in the US, China, and Australia), and the responsibility for all the suffering that will occur in the new human-made octopuses’ Hells will ultimately lay on their shoulders.