Octopuses have existed for millions of years and are recognized as some of the most intelligent animals in the sea. In 2020, My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix original documentary film, captured the heartfelt relationship between humans and octopuses, placing a spotlight on these miraculous creatures. However, they are all too often treated as a commodity, which encourages the dangerous possibility of cruel, industrialized farming.

Can cephalopods – octopus, cuttlefish, squid – be farmed sustainably? This seems to be the number one question asked after news surfaced regarding the establishment of the world’s first commercialized octopus farm in Spain and a potential new squid farming operation in Japan. Sustainable development, by definition, is to satisfy the demands of current generations without threatening the needs of future generations while taking economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being into account. Under this principle, “sustainable” octopus farming simply cannot exist.

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Octopus Sentience and Welfare

In November 2021, the United Kingdom extended the scope of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill to recognize octopus and cephalopod mollusks (squid, cuttlefish, etc.) as sentient beings (ones that can reason, learn, and experience sensations) following the findings of a government-commissioned independent review by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The five-year project drew on more than 300 existing scientific studies to reach a sentient conclusion, and the authors recommended that the government expand its definition of animal welfare to include these animals.

Scientists have highlighted the many issues of octopus farming, all of which are related to the fact that these animals, like many others, are not suited in any way, shape, or form for large-scale farming. The Aquatic Life Institute (ALI) turns to 5 pillars of welfare in our engagements with key decision-makers.

These include environmental enrichment, feed composition, stocking density and space requirements, water quality, and stunning and slaughter. However, each pillar of octopus welfare is violated when farming systems are introduced.

Environmental Enrichment:

Octopuses are intelligent and inquisitive. Such a high level of enrichment would not be possible, resulting in extreme boredom and chronic mental/physical stress.

Feed Composition:

Octopuses rely on unsustainable carnivorous diets. Increased use of fishmeal/fish oil derived from capture fisheries would place even more pressure on an already unsustainable fishing practice.

Stocking Density and Space Requirements:

Many species of octopus are solitary by nature. High stocking densities, which is a standard industry practice to amplify production on farms, could result in cannibalism and aggression.

Water Quality:

They are very fragile due to the lack of internal or external skeletons and could be highly susceptible to any sudden changes in their environment.

Stunning and Slaughter:

Presently, no humane method of slaughter exists.

Octopus Farms: An Unsustainable Answer

Aside from the pronounced welfare concerns for individual animals held in these systems, several additional concerns related to public health and well-being must also be acknowledged.

First, current commercial aquaculture practices are unsustainable by nature. Aquaculture has been touted as a solution to overfishing and food security. Moreover, farming carnivorous species, such as octopus and squid, requires an increase in the number of marine species sourced from already strained fisheries using inhumane fishing practices, contributing to a further decrease in declining populations. One study found that the optimal feeding frequency for oval squid is four to five times per day. Such practices exacerbate food insecurity issues in coastal communities that could otherwise use those lower-level protein sources (e.g., anchovies) that are rich in nutrients and energy, which are instead fed to farmed species.

Second, commercial aquaculture farms carry several biosecurity and biophysical threats to surrounding environments. A large area of concern is the potential development and rapid spread of unknown pathogens and diseases, which could create a substantial public health crisis. COVID-19 has taken place against a backdrop of numerous animal pandemics, each with
significant human causal factors. The underwater health and resilience of animals in aquatic farm systems are intertwined with the economic health, public resilience, and security of human society. The exotic diseases and pathogens associated with unprecedented octopus farming could create an existential threat with few readily available solutions.

Finally, farming octopus and squid could have detrimental effects on local aquatic animals either indirectly through unknown contaminants and pollutants transferred through discharge or directly through farmed and wild aquatic animal interactions made possible by instances of escape. If any escapes were to occur due to human error or natural disasters that harm the integrity of enclosures, then diseases, pathogens, chemicals, etc. could be passed from farmed to wild populations leading to negative interactions with local species and a decrease in the genetic integrity of native aquatic animals.

The development of octopus farming only casts a spotlight on the collection of concerns connected to these intensive practices. Rather than incentivizing the research and development of aquaculture that could be “efficient and cheap enough” to be commercialized, we should direct investment efforts towards innovative, alternative forms of seafood. From both sustainable and environmental perspectives, octopus farming should not play a role in global seafood development.

What Can Be Done?

Government policy must focus on shifting to a global, plant-based food system in an attempt to tackle the dire climate change emergency we are currently facing worldwide. Establishing new animal factory farms is contrary to United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Banning these types of farms now will allow countries to develop in complete alignment with the 2030 SDG commitments moving forward.

Reducing or eliminating your consumption of Octopus, and shifting to alternative plant-based food options, is also an individual action anyone can take.

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