Octopus farming turns my stomach – but are some species really more worthy than others?

Octopus farming turns my stomach – but are some species really more worthy than others?

The collective noun for a group of octopuses, in case you were wondering, is a consortium – not, as some wags might tell you, a seafood buffet.

I myself don’t eat octopus, and have made a lot of noise about why: they’re as smart as parrots, their brain is spread over their arms, they are many millions of years older than we are – don’t you know that, of all the species on Earth, only they and we share a high-resolution camera eye?

So it was with no pleasure that I read that plans for the world’s first-ever commercial octopus farm appear to be progressing. A proposal has been submitted to authorities in the Canary Islands for a facility in Las Palmas that would produce 3,000 tonnes of octopus each year for export.

According to documents seen by the BBC, the company Nueva Pescanova proposes raising 1 million animals in around 1,000 communal tanks – evening out to 10 to 15 octopuses per cubic metre, or 80-120 legs.

Personally, I don’t see them going quietly. Past attempts to farm octopuses have failed because (along with challenges feeding the larvae) they have proved simply too unwieldy to contain. They can squeeze themselves through any hole that can fit their beak, which is about the width of a 50p coin. They are not only dextrous, but strong, capable of opening screw-top jars and lifting heavy tank lids. They can also survive up to half an hour out of water: long enough to make a dash for it through a drainpipe.

Scientists have struggled to keep even one or two individuals in captivity without being outwitted. A proposal to house 1 million, then, reads more like one of Kafka’s aphorisms than a real-life business plan (“A tank went in search of a cephalopod”).

But even if it does prove possible to farm octopuses, the question is – should we?

There isn’t an obvious need. Relative to many marine species, octopuses are adapting quickly to the changing oceans, and there seems no immediate risk of overfishing. Farming would be more of a toll on the environment, causing both toxic run-off into local waters and more fish to be caught for food – plus it is inevitably more cruel.

Fishers dispatch of their octopus catch with a club to the head or a knife to the central brain: instant, but not very scalable. Nueva Pescanova proposes killing its octopuses by immersing them in water kept at -3C. A 2009 study of this “live chilling” of farmed turbot found it to be “highly questionable”, causing stress and potentially severe pain before death.

Even for fish, it’s an undeniably grisly process – but, of course, the reason that people are up in arms over farming of octopus, and not turbot, is because of the creatures’ intelligence. It’s long been understood that octopuses are among the smartest of animals, named alongside dolphins, crows and apes. In captivity, they have shown themselves capable of navigating mazes, completing complex tasks and even recognising individual humans. The Oscar-winning Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher further impressed on audiences their exceptionalism.

A shot from the film My Octopus Teacher (2020), about a man’s unlikely friendship with a common octopus. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
A shot from the film My Octopus Teacher (2020), about a man’s unlikely friendship with a common octopus. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Seven years after publicising my own stance on the subject, I still don’t eat cephalopods. But my thinking has expanded: I am no longer sure that an animal being intelligent is a good reason not to eat it.

Even in the past decade, we’ve come a long way in understanding what animals are capable of – including ones we have systematically underestimated. Every new Attenborough series captures some astonishing behaviour that has never been seen before, and not just in the usual suspects, the orcas and macaws – but among fish, birds and even insects.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the very concept of “animal intelligence” is fraught, judged as it is by human standards. Tool use has been a historic measure, for example – but that favours animals with hands or beaks. Only relatively recently have scientists accepted that fish invent tools, making them arguably more resourceful than animals of great dexterity.

Squid and cuttlefish may be as smart as octopuses, their close relations, but just lacking the arms to show it off. As one scientist put it last year: “If people studied mantis shrimps the way they study octopuses, they would be really blown away at how smart they are.” It just goes to show that we privilege those species we can see ourselves in, or care enough to study.

Even our definitions of sentience can be ridiculously arbitrary: octopuses are still not included under US animal welfare laws because they are invertebrates, meaning they lack a backbone. The UK government recognised octopuses, crabs and lobsters as sentient beings in November 2021 – but with no change to fishing practices or in restaurant kitchens. The law recognises that lobsters can feel pain, but it’s still not a crime to boil them alive.

It just goes to show how self-congratulatory our thinking on animal intelligence can be: favouring those species that we find exceptional, or relatable, but rarely in a way that does them any good. There are real costs to this human superiority complex for us, too, as evinced by the recent pandemic and the existential threat of the climate crisis.

I’m convinced that the path forward is not making exceptions for octopuses, and other species that we deem worthy, but prioritising an inhabitable Earth for all of us. The arc of the moral universe is surely bending towards less exploitation of living beings, less net suffering – regardless of their intelligence.

That looks like multinational corporations such as Nueva Pescanova taking responsibility for what looks more and more like cruel and polluting factory farming; governments such as the authorities in the Canary Islands rejecting such farms in their jurisdictions; and individuals eating higher-quality meat, and less of it overall – and octopus only when it’s been locally caught.

A prerequisite to living sustainably is a sense of proportion; an understanding of ourselves as just another life form on the planet. We have been fortunate to enjoy a Homo sapiens supremacy for many millions of years – but, heaven forbid, should it ever be upended, I hope we know better than to look to proficiency with tools as the test of acceptable suffering.

This article by Elle Hunt was first published by The Guardian on 30 March 2023. Lead Image: ‘I am no longer sure that an animal being intelligent is a good reason not to eat it.’ Photograph: Tammy616/Getty Images.

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