Serving up sentience: World’s first industrial octopus farm sparks outrage among environmentalists
17 Oct 2022 --- Spanish seafood multinational Nueva Pescanova is investing a reported US$63 million to build the world’s first industrial-scale octopus farm in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, next year amid rising octopus consumption demand across the Mediterranean, Asia, Mexico and the US.
The plans have been met with fierce resistance by environmental groups and scientists, with protests taking place outside Spanish embassies in more than 20 locations worldwide earlier this month.
Opponents are demanding that the Spanish government reverses its decision to authorize the project and recognize octopuses as sentient creatures. They argue that mass-producing octopuses will further deplete wild fish populations, contravening the EU Strategic Aquaculture Guidelines while paving the way for additional energy-intensive farming practices.
Nueva Pescanova has declared an estimated annual output of 3,000 tons of octopus meat. Considering the Octopus vulgaris (the species to be farmed) weighs up to 9 kg, this output equates to the slaughter of at least 300,000 captive octopuses each year. The Ocean Born Foundation points out that it takes 3 kg of feed to yield 1 kg of octopus meat.
“The government has authorized the Pescanova factory, which will be subsidized by taxpayers to mass produce octopuses for luxury markets. This is not visionary – it is unsustainable, polluting, and cruel. There is still time to reverse the decision. We have to stop octopus farming before it begins,” says Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of Environmental Studies at New York University, who submitted a formal objection against the farm.
FoodIngredientsFirst has made several attempts to contact Nueva Pescanova for a response to the criticism but has not received a reply.
Capital and captivity
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the global octopus trade doubled from US$1.3 billion in 2010 to US$2.7 billion in 2019. However, the volume of commercially-caught octopuses only increased by 9% in the same period, prompting companies to explore the possibility of industrial-scale breeding.
Octopus is offered on many menus and in grocery stores worldwide, and researchers estimate that about 50,000 tons of octopus are caught each year. However, there are currently no laws in Europe, the US, Mexico or Japan to protect farmed octopuses from suffering, particularly from agonizing killing methods.
Nueva Pescanova has failed to explain how the octopuses will be raised or killed. However, wild-caught octopuses are typically killed by clubbing their heads, cutting into their brains without anesthetic, asphyxiation in a net or chilling in ice.
The company intends to raise the octopuses in tanks on land since maintaining ideal growing conditions in the open ocean is logistically near-impossible. It is yet to reveal whether it intends to isolate octopuses to restrictive, individual pipes or keep them in communal tanks. Both options raise concerns about how these solitary animals’ welfare will be ensured.
“Octopuses are incredible creatures and should be treated with love and kindness, not imprisoned and slaughtered. They should never be stuck inside tanks, raised on farms, eaten, or abused in any way,” Anita Krajnc, global campaign coordinator at the Plant Based Treaty, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“These eight-armed geniuses are playful, inquisitive, sensitive, determined and just like every other animal on this planet, worthy of our protection. They are also the world’s most intelligent invertebrate and as smart as a golden retriever.”
Moreover, Dr. Jennifer Mather, an expert in octopus and squid behavior at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, argues it’s probable that an octopus’ reaction to pain is similar to a vertebrate. “Octopuses can anticipate a painful, difficult, stressful situation – they can remember it. There is absolutely no doubt that they feel pain. Not only that, but they learn to avoid sites where pain has been inflicted on them,” she notes.
While the octopus tanks are more convenient for the industry, environmentalists warn they will be resource-intensive to run, raising questions about energy use and emissions. Also, it remains unclear how the large quantities of water will be treated before being released to waterways.
In addition to ethical concerns around farming sentient creatures, opponents highlight that feeding octopuses on an industrial scale will exacerbate already depleted wild fish populations. They argue this contradicts the EU’s Strategic Aquaculture Guidelines, which focus on developing sustainable food systems.
“Octopuses’ carnivorous diets are unsustainable for the environment and a highly inefficient and wasteful way to produce food,” Carolina Manhusen Schwab, president of the Ocean Born Foundation, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
In March, environmental charity ClientEarth took legal action against EU ministers for allowing “hugely unsustainable fishing to take place,” stating that 40% of fish stocks in the North-East Atlantic are still overfished. In 2012, EU Member States agreed to end overfishing by 2020. However, according to ClientEarth, fishing limits set for 2022 were above the sustainable scientific advice for one-third of the commercial fish stocks managed by the EU and UK.
Siding with octopuses
Protests occurred outside Spanish embassies, restaurants selling octopuses and aquariums on October 8 (World Octopus Day 2022) in more than 20 locations, including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Edmonton, Gran Canaria, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Mexico City and Mumbai.
Meanwhile, more than 4,500 Plant Based Treaty supporters have written to officials in the Canary Islands asking them to block plans for Nueva Pescanova’s farm, and more than 55,000 supporters have signed a petition calling on the governments of Spain and Gran Canaria to intervene to stop octopus farming and recognize the creatures as sentient beings.
However, what impact the protests will have remains uncertain, says Dr. Elena Lara, research manager for fish at Compassion in World Farming. “As far as we know, Nueva Pescanova has not shown any intention to close the farm or not to move forward with the project,” she tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“Since Compassion in World Farming launched the report Octopus Factory Farming: A Recipe For Disaster, there have been several protests and Twitter storms. However, Nueva Pescanova has not publicly responded to this activity, nor expressed that they will reconsider their project.”
“The Spanish government has been funding several public projects in the last 20-30 years in order to close the reproduction cycle of octopus in captivity to farm them for human consumption.”
Although global demand for octopus as a protein source continues to grow, there is also increasing public acknowledgment that these animals are intelligent and emotional creatures. Notably, in 2020, the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary film My Octopus Teacher captured a man befriending a common octopus in the wild.
This month, Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton and 18 other US federal lawmakers urged the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services to enact protections for cephalopods – octopus, squid and cuttlefish – which are increasingly used in lab research without federal requirements for “humane” handling.
By Joshua Poole
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