What We Can Learn From Octopus, Those Teachers of the Sea

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Why Plans to Farm Octopus Need an Urgent Rethink 

Camera-shutter eyes blinked as tentacles waved like the trunk of an elephant. A pink, bulbous head formed the epicentre of a complexity of flesh waiting to make the next move. Yet, there was nowhere to go. It was a travesty of nature. An octopus trying to figure out why on earth they were trapped in a barren tank. A snapshot of something that should never be. An animal of the wide oceans now confined for farming’s new frontier.  

Octopus are fascinating creatures suffused with nervousness and famed for their intelligence. The brain of an octopus has 500 million neurons, making them as smart as a dog or a three-year-old child. But unlike us, an octopus’s neurons are arranged throughout their entire body. Curious problem-solvers, they have a long memory. They can remember how to open a screw-top jar months later. In captivity, they’ve been known to squirt keepers they don’t like and steal fish from adjacent tanks. 

If that wasn’t enough to put anyone off farming them, then perhaps their appetite for other fish should make us think again. It means that captive rearing is far from a free lunch. It relies on catching wild fish to feed them. Which means taking three times more weight of fish from the ocean as feed than given back by the ‘end product’. So rather than protecting the oceans, farming octopus would put them under yet more pressure.

Yet, farming octopus is something now being seriously considered by some. Until recently, no one knew how to rear octopus in captivity past the larval stage. 

However, in 2019, Spanish seafood company, Nueva Pescanova Group announced that they’d managed to rear them all the way to adulthood and even on to laying eggs in captivity. 

The company is now pursuing plans to build the first octopus farm in the Canary Islands, where it would reportedly produce about a million octopuses for food each year.

Yet serious animal welfare and environmental concerns are leading to growing calls for a rethink

Confining hundreds of octopuses together in tanks could lead to stress and cannibalism in the highly territorial creatures who normally lead solitary lives. There are fears that octopus farming could threaten dolphins and turtles whilst causing water pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

Plans in Spain come against the backdrop of an octopus farm having closed in Hawaii following a campaign by animal welfare environmental charity, Compassion in World Farming.

A still from Netflix’s ‘My Octopus Teacher’

Award-winning Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher brought the sensitivities of these intelligent creatures to our living rooms. It showed South Africa-based filmmaker, Craig Foster exploring an underwater kelp forest where he befriended a curious young octopus. 

Foster described how the greatest lesson his octopus mentor taught him was that humans are part of the natural world around us, and not simply visitors.

And therein lies a lesson: that we should avoid repeating mistakes of the past by avoiding bringing yet more species into degrading farm practices. That compassion, respect, and kinship should be at the forefront of how we treat fellow creatures with whom we share this lonely planet.

This is a version of an article that was first published in The Scotsman on Friday 17th May, 2024

Main Image Credit: iStock

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