Nature and Biodiversity

Millions of people eat octopus- here's why we shouldn't

Octopus Paul II is pictured at the Sea Life Centre in the western German city of Oberhausen, November 2, 2010. Paul II replaces World Cup oracle Octopus Paul, who died last week. The young French-born octopus was transferred to the Sea Life Centre some weeks ago so that Paul I could teach him predictive powers, but unfortunately Paul I died before he could do that, a spokeswoman said. It has not yet been decided whether Paul II will predict the results of the European Football Championship in 2012. Picture taken November 2, 2010. REUTERS/Pool (GERMANY - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY SPORT SOCCER)

Eight legs and personality Image: REUTERS/Pool (GERMANY - Tags: ANIMALS SOCIETY SPORT SOCCER)

David Knowles
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Farming octopuses is not only unethical but deeply damaging to the environment, scientists say.

From the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, octopuses are considered a culinary delicacy, and demand is growing. Of the estimated 350,000 tonne annual catch, two-thirds goes to Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea (a whole third of the global catch ends up in China) but European countries such as Spain and Italy are also big octopus importers.

To meet growing demand, many countries are experimenting with raising octopuses in artificial conditions. One Japanese company reported hatching octopus eggs in captivity in 2017 and wants to open its first farm in 2020. In Spain, experiments with net pens, in tanks on land and in large sea ‘ranches’ are ongoing.

Frieda, a nine-month-old female octopus (lat.: Octopus Vulgaris) tries to open a jar, which contains her favourite seafood snacks of shrimps,crabs and clams in Munich's Hellabrunn Zoo March 14, 2003. REUTERS/AlexandraWinkler
An octopus opening a jar Image: REUTERS/AlexandraWinkler REUTERSAX/JOH

But, as a team of scientists from New York University argue, for environmental and ethical reasons, we should avoid farming octopuses.

There is already a wealth of research that suggests octopuses are one of the most complex and intelligent animals in the ocean. They can recognise individual human faces, solve problems (and remember the answers for months) and there is some evidence they experience pain and suffering. Numerous videos on the internet of octopuses escaping from their tanks or stealing fishermen's catches have fuelled a human fascination with the only invertebrate that the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness considers sentient alongside mammals and birds.


Keeping intelligent animals like octopuses in large, industrial farms poses numerous ethical issues and a lot of it is down to how aquaculture has evolved over the past decades.

Existing aquaculture, the scientists say, depends on "tightly controlled and monotonous environments...with constant ambient conditions, simplified and sterile enclosures, and rigid feeding schedules, aimed at supporting high stocking densities."

This is anathema to a curious and active octopus which is more likely to catch infections, become more aggressive and have a high mortality rate when reared in farming conditions.

Aside from the ethical qualms, the environmental impact of octopus farming also worries the scientists.

The amount of feed needed to sustain and grow an octpus is three times the weight of the animal itself and, given that octopuses are carnivorous and live on fish oils and protein, rearing them risks putting further pressure on an already over-exploited marine ecoystem.

Salted octopus are placed out to dry on a beach in Nazare October 29, 2013.  REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Salted and dried Image: REUTERS/Rafael Marchante (PORTUGAL - Tags: SOCIETY FOOD)

Even as demand grows, octopus farming is still in its infancy. Researchers and breeders have yet to figure out reliable ways to keep octopuses alive during their infancy and the farms that do exist can find it difficult to manage such an intelligent animal.

Octopuses are just one of the vast number of marine animals humans use for food, and the idea of farming them poses profound questions about our relationship with a fracturing natural world.

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