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A seafood firm wants to farm octopus. Activists say they're too smart for that

A Spanish seafood company says its octopus farm would benefit animals in the wild, citing growing demand for octopus meat. Here, an octopus is seen at the Get Fish market in Sydney, Australia, last December.
Jenny Evans
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Getty Images
A Spanish seafood company says its octopus farm would benefit animals in the wild, citing growing demand for octopus meat. Here, an octopus is seen at the Get Fish market in Sydney, Australia, last December.

Octopuses are capable of sophisticated tasks, from solving puzzles to decorating their dens to remembering people's faces. So when a company in Spain announced that it wanted to commercially farm octopuses to harvest them for seafood, the plan sparked an uproar.

"I was appalled," Sy Montgomery, author of the bestselling book The Soul of an Octopus, told NPR.

Seafood company Nueva Pescanova plans to build the farm on 52,691 square meters (around 567,000 square feet) along a dock in the Canary Islands, at the Port of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria island. The facility would keep octopuses in tanks.

The company unveiled the plan several years ago. Despite opposition, its permit requests are currently pending.

Company says the farm would help meet rising demand

"The octopus aquaculture project is a pioneering scientific milestone in the world," the company said in a statement to NPR, saying it wants to help conserve the species while meeting the world's rising hunger for octopus.

Eating octopus is part of many food traditions, from Spain and Portugal to Greece, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and China.

"Global octopus consumption amounts to 350,000 tons per year and the market is expected to grow by 21.5% in 2028 compared to 2022," according to Nueva Pescanova.

The company claims an octopus farm would ease fishing pressure on wild populations. But the idea's critics believe the industrial-scale farm is motivated more by profit goals than by conservation. They also say concentrated aquaculture tends to create new problems, such as pollution and disease.

Animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming has led a protest campaign against the octopus farm since it was first proposed a few years ago. The group recently sent a letter to Canary Islands President Fernando Clavijo Batlle, urging him to reject the seafood company's plan. Around 75 advocacy organizations and experts signed it, including Montgomery.

Seafood company doubts octopuses' intelligence

Once seen as inscrutably alien creatures, octopuses have been having a moment.

Montgomery's 2015 book brought an intimate view of octopuses to a wide audience — part of a push that includes the 2010 book Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate, the 2020 documentary film My Octopus Teacher, and Shelby Van Pelt's 2022 novel Remarkably Bright Creatures.

"These guys, these octopuses, they're so intelligent," Montgomery said. "And I know this not only from following the science for years for my my book, The Soul of an Octopus, and the upcoming book, Secrets of the Octopus. But I know it from having gotten to know individual octopuses and spent years being friends with them. I know that they are sensitive, curious, intelligent creatures with memories and with volition."

Octopuses are also known for being great escape artists — and for cultivating a home with curb (reef?) appeal.

"One of my favorite facts about octopus is that they've been observed keeping gardens in which they travel around the seabed finding shiny stones and rocks to put out in front of their dwelling, like a garden," Ben Williamson, U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming, told NPR. "This behavior inspired Ringo Starr to come up with the 1969 Beatles song, 'Octopus's Garden.'"

But in Nueva Pescanova's view, humans are over-interpreting octopus behaviors.

"The fact that octopuses have evolved a strong ability to protect themselves against potential predators or environmental hazards due to their physiology does not make them more intelligent or sensitive than other animals," the seafood company said in a message responding to questions from NPR.

Nueva Pescanova says its research, including efforts to study the stress response in octopuses, "highlights the inappropriateness of humanizing certain species and losing focus" on their physiological uniqueness.

"In fact, there is no scientifically validated knowledge about the 'intelligence' of the octopus, or whether it is more or less intelligent than other species already bred," the company said.

"Oh, that's so not true," Montgomery said in response to that claim, citing research into octopus intelligence by biologists such as Jennifer Mather.

"Now, of course, just like humans, there's individual differences and there are some genius octopuses, there are some shy octopuses, there are some bold octopuses," Montgomery said. But in general, she added, "They are really smart," noting intelligence tests created for children have been adapted for octopuses and other cephalopods.

"One of the cool studies that I report on in [the forthcoming book] Secrets of the Octopus is one done by Alex Schnell, who's a biologist based in Australia," Montgomery said.

Schnell wanted to test how an octopus relative, the cuttlefish, would handle the delayed gratification promised by a marine version of the marshmallow test.

"And she found that these cuttlefish are able to resist temptation because they are thinking about the future," Montgomery said.

Octopus farm would rely on breeding apex predators

Nueva Pescanova envisions creating a commercial-scale octopus farm along a dock in the Canary Islands, hundreds of miles southwest of Spain.
/ Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
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Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
Nueva Pescanova envisions creating a commercial-scale octopus farm along a dock in the Canary Islands, hundreds of miles southwest of Spain.

The Canary Island farm plans on using octopuses raised in captivity, in its own breeding system. Nueva Pescanova says that as it works to get permits and other approvals for the facility, its breeding program is now working with the fifth generation of common octopus, or Octopus vulgaris.

"They're thought to be the most suitable for captivity because they're less picky eaters," Williamson said. "They have shorter lifespans of one or two years."

There have been other attempts to create indoor breeding programs; the Spanish plan is the first bid to create a large commercial farm, Williamson said.

Nueva Pescanova says that its ability to breed octopuses — a notoriously difficult feat — shows that it's succeeding at creating the right environment for the animals, from the quality of the water to temperature and lighting. As octopuses grow, the company said, they're shifted to differently sized pools.

The company also points to support for its plan from scientific research centers in Spain, Portugal and Mexico. But its critics note that as a carnivorous apex predator, an octopus requires protein to fuel their fast growth.

"I think these folks would like to make a lot of money from it because octopuses grow very rapidly," Montgomery said of Nueva Pescanova's planned farm. "They're one of the most rapidly growing animals known in the world, but they grow by eating other animals. So I think there's just too much of a risk to the environment. I think it is extremely cruel."

Nueva Pescanova says it respects "all options and sensitivities. Both those who are opposed to the consumption of food of animal origin, and those who appreciate and demand to eat healthy food such as octopus."

There is a dispute over sustainability

During the 2010 World Cup, an octopus named Paul became an international celebrity by predicting a number of big matches — including his choice of Spain as the eventual winner. He's seen here opening a box with decorated with a Spanish flag and a shell inside.
Patrik Stollarz / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
During the 2010 World Cup, an octopus named Paul became an international celebrity by predicting a number of big matches — including his choice of Spain as the eventual winner. He's seen here opening a box with decorated with a Spanish flag and a shell inside.

The problem with raising octopuses, Williamson said, is that they require other animals to eat — which in turn leads to more fishing.

"Octopuses naturally feed on crabs and clams, small fish in the wild," he said. Citing the proteins the animals would need to grow to a marketable size, Williamson concluded, "It's estimated that it would take at least three pounds of wild caught fish to produce one pound of farmed octopus. So it's completely unsustainable in that respect."

Nueva Pescanova says it plans to feed the octopuses a diet aimed at maximizing sustainability, rather than creating a new demand for wild-caught fish.

"It is a diet formulated based on by-products and discards from fishing, as well as raw materials of marine origin certified as sustainable," the company said. "Its efficacy and assimilation has already been demonstrated and it is a circular economy solution that helps to avoid having to resort to fishing wild animals to feed the octopus."

Nueva Pescanova says its plans are in line with calls for more sustainable aquaculture development that were part of the 2022 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as well as European Union initiatives (Asia has been the world leader in aquaculture).

The FAO report also noted, "Aquaculture growth has often occurred at the expense of the environment." And for cephalopods in particular, it said that while their share of global trade has increased, "supplies are at risk due to poor management. This has led to steep price increases in recent years."

Because of the proposed octopus farm's location on a dock, Montgomery said, "any disease, organisms or fecal matter, whatever — is going to go back out into the into the ocean."

Such farms could threaten wild octopus populations, Montgomery said.

"Our seas are in so much trouble right now, as you know. By 2050, there's going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. So I say let's leave the octopuses in the ocean and let's just give even fishing them a break. And let's not create more problems with these huge concentrations of animals that can threaten the wild ones."

As of now, Nueva Pescanova's plans for the Canary Islands farm face a number of hurdles, from local permits to permissions to discharge from land into the Atlantic Ocean and other licenses.

"These permissions are all being held up at the moment by an environmental impact assessment decision, which could come at any time," Williamson said.

Citing the wait for necessary licenses, the seafood company told NPR, "we do not yet have a concrete date for the start of the operations at the plant."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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