Spanish Firm’s Plans to Farm Octopuses Raises Ethical Quandaries

The idea should be nixed before it ever becomes a reality, say activists and researchers.

It’s hard not to be enchanted with octopuses. These eight-tentacled mollusks are stunningly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. They can use tools, change colors, escape enclosures, form opinions about people, solve problems, and experience emotions. They are, in a word, charismatic. Globally, they are also an increasingly popular food item, which means there is growing interest in farming them.

common octopus

A proposed octopus farm in the Canary Islands would rear and kill around 1 million animals a year. Proponents of the project says it will alleviate pressure on wild octopus populations, but the carnivorous cephalopods would need to be fed fish. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash.

For Spanish seafood company Nueva Pescanova, that interest may soon become reality: The multinational corporation has submitted a proposal to the Spanish government to launch the first commercial octopus farm in the world later this year. According to a report by the animal welfare organization, Eurogroup for Animals, which obtained information about the plans from sources in Spain, the land-based facility on the Canary Islands would hold octopuses in hundreds of tanks, rearing and killing around 1 million animals a year. Nueva Pescanova says the facility, if approved, would produce some 3,000 tons of octopus meat annually.

Animal rights activists say the plans are rife with ethical and environmental problems. Octopuses are solitary animals who do their best to avoid light. On the Neuva Pescanova farm, they would be packed into tanks together, approximately 10 to 15 animals per cubic meter, and at times exposed to long periods of unnatural light to speed up the spawning process, according to Eurogroup for Animals. Experts say the light exposure is likely to cause stress, while the close quarters could lead to aggression and even cannibalism among octopuses. Then there’s the matter of their killing, which will involve submerging them in ice water, a process that has been shown to cause significant pain in fish. (It has not been studied in cephalopods).

There are also broader ethical questions around “putting a highly intelligent, sophisticated, curious species — let alone individuals — into a life of mass production,” says Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, and one of several researchers who penned an open letter against octopus farming in 2019. “The monotonous, dull, foreign environment that they would be subject to is, to me, the bigger harm.”

“Our primary concern is quality of life,” adds Katie Nolan, a campaigner with In Defense of Animals, an international animal protection organization. “It’s very disheartening that they’re developing technologies to farm a new animal when the world should be shifting away from factory farming in general,” Nolan adds.

Nueva Pescanova says octopus farming will alleviate pressure on wild populations, which are feeling the strain of overfishing. Opponents counter that carnivorous octopuses will require significant fishmeal and fish oil, which are derived primarily from forage fish like anchovy and sardines, and that will put additional pressure on these wild populations. Additionally, there are well-documented issues with disposal of aquaculture waste, which is often discharged into nearby waters. As Jacquet puts it, “octopus farming would be no exception.”

Jaquet points out that there are social equity concerns around octopus farming as well, given that the growing market is fueled primarily by demand from upscale markets in places like Japan, Korea, China, the United States, Spain, and Italy. “This is really about a luxury product,” she says, about “putting more capital and investment and subsidy into feeding the rich rather than creating a food source for the poor.”

Until recently, there was no commercially viable way to farm octopus at a large scale, primarily because scientists didn’t know how to successfully breed them. A smaller scale research facility in Hawai’i was temporarily shut down earlier this year, and a small octopus “ranch” in Mexico continues to operate. Both, however, depend on wild caught individuals for their operations.

That changed in 2019 when Nueva Pescanova announced that it had been able to successfully “close the reproduction cycle of octopus in aquaculture,” raising octopuses that reach adult age and are able to reproduce themselves. Nueva Pescanova has now successfully raised five generations of captive-born common octopuses, or Octopus vulgaris.

But Nueva Pescanova’s scientific breakthrough, and the scale of the proposed operation, has galvanized animal welfare activists and researchers, who say the idea of octopus farms should be nixed before it ever becomes a reality.

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“It is important that we evaluate whether or not these farms should have the social license to operate before they begin operating,” says Jacquet. “For every other major polluter out there, we’re now talking about removing the social license to operate, which is much more difficult than granting it to begin with.”

“If we could go back and do it all again, maybe we’d say the same thing about pigs or cows, right?” she adds. “But we’re at this juncture where we can really decide.”

Currently, invertebrates tend to fall into a regulatory gap. In the European Union, for example, they are expressly excluded from animal welfare laws governing animal farming, though they are included in laws pertaining to animal research. In the United States, there are no regulations regarding their treatment.

In the absence of protections, campaigners have been taking up the fight around the globe, in many cases pushing for outright bans on the practice. In February, the Washington State House passed a bill that would ban both octopus farming and the sale of farmed octopus in the state. In April, more than two dozen animal protection organizations wrote to the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, calling for a similar ban.

Back in Spain, Nueva Pescanova’s permit is still pending. Environmental and animal rights groups are calling on the Canary Islands government to reject the plan, and in May, activists gathered in Madrid to call attention to the issue.

The sense of urgency among activists is clear. “This is our moment to stop these factory farms in their tracks,” says Nolan. “It’s so much harder to deconstruct things once they’ve been built.”

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