Scientists have slammed a “cruel” proposal to open the world’s first octopus farm.
Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova plans to raise over a million of the intelligent creatures for food per year, according to internal blueprints leaked to the BBC this week.
The proposal was first revealed in February 2022 - but this is the first time details have emerged. The farm in the Canary Islands will house the creatures in tanks of 1,000 in a two storey building, the documents show, leading to a mortality rate of around 10-15 per cent.
The animals would reportedly be fed with ‘fish discards and byproducts’ and would be killed by being placed in an “ice slurry.”
Nueva Pescanova denies that the animals would suffer, but scientists have hit back at the proposal.
“It would be very cruel and should not be allowed,” Professor Peter Tse of Dartmouth University told the BBC.
'Shut it down': Why the controversy?
Nueva Pescanova has already invested over €65 million in a massive farm due to be built in the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The farm will be able to produce 3,000 tonnes of octopus per year.
But the fact that octopuses are incredibly intelligent animals is now common knowledge.
Multiple experiments have proven that these curious, shape-shifting animals engage in quite complex behaviours - like using coconuts and shells to hide and fight. They are able to quickly learn established tasks by observation alone and have 500 million neurons - which makes them as smart as dogs or a three-year-old child.
Last year, the UK recognised octopuses as 'sentient beings' after an independent review of 300 scientific studies by the London School of Economics and Political Science. The review presented irrefutable evidence that octopuses are able to experience pain as well as excitement and pleasure.
And if scientists' opinions are often ignored, when it comes to octopuses, pop culture has come to the rescue.
In 2010, Paul 'the psychic' octopus became something of a hero in Germany for correctly guessing the outcome of all of Germany's seven matches in that year’s FIFA World Cup. He even predicted the winner of the final match between Spain and the Netherlands.
The Netflix Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, portraying the moving friendship between a filmmaker and a cephalopod, was also great PR for these invertebrates.
High mortality, cannibalism and self-mutilation: Why farming octopuses is so wrong
Due to their inquisitive and curious natures, octopuses will suffer greatly in captivity. They're also solitary, territorial creatures, and experts fear being trapped in enclosed spaces with unwanted neighbours will lead them to eat each other.
Previous attempts to breed octopuses for farming have faced high mortality rates among the animals, as well as cases of aggression, cannibalism and self-mutilation.
There's currently no recognised humane method to kill octopuses, and the current techniques used on wild octopuses are far from merciful to these cephalopods. Octopuses killed for human consumption are often boiled alive, clubbed in the head, suffocated or frozen in ice.
Surely there's a law to stop this farm from opening?
Well - yes and no.
The EU has strict regulations to ensure animal welfare across Europe’s farms, but unfortunately, these laws do not cover invertebrates - like octopuses.
But according to many scientists, octopuses are in many ways an exception among invertebrates. They’re the only invertebrates, for example, to be able to use tools to make their life easier.
Because of this, some countries, including the UK, consider them 'honorary vertebrates' and extend to them the same protection granted to vertebrates (for example, surgery during tests cannot be performed without anaesthesia.)
Octopuses have never been farmed. Why start now?
Octopus has long been a craved delicacy in Mediterranean countries, Asia and Mexico. But recently demand for their meat has been soaring, as countries that didn't traditionally eat octopus are developing a taste for it.
Around 350,000 octopuses are estimated to be captured in the wild every year, 10 times more than in the 1950s.
Growing demand for octopus is causing the overfishing of this animal, and subsequently the rise in its price on the global market. All of this is contributing to making the idea of farming octopuses increasingly more appealing.
But isn't fish farming good for the planet?
Believe it or not, Nueva Pescanova is actually seeking a grant from the European Union's Next Generation funds, the EU's package of loans and grants supporting the recovery from the pandemic and fostering a greener economy.
It's doing so by claiming that farming octopus will reduce the mounting pressure on wild stocks, in line with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
According to the new EU Strategic Aquaculture Guidelines (SAGs) introduced by the EU in 2021, Europe is encouraging seafood farming to end its reliance on fishmeal and fish oil made from wild-caught fish and to diversify with more sustainable species.
And yet scientists argue that there won’t be any benefit for the environment from octopus farming, in fact, quite the opposite.
In "The Case Against Octopus Farming" published on Issues in Science and Technology in 2019, researchers argue that "farming octopus is counterproductive from a perspective of environmental sustainability," as octopuses follow a carnivorous diet that will contain fishmeal.
According to the WWF, around a third of the global fish catch is used to feed other animals. Farming octopuses would just deepen the crisis experienced by depleted stocks.
With all that we know about the ongoing biodiversity crisis, animal welfare and the rise of vegan and vegetarian alternatives on the food market, choosing to farm octopuses seems, indeed, as scientists say, an unnecessary "disaster."