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First octopus farm in the world sparks ethical dispute

An octopus is seen inside a pond of the Spanish Oceanography Institute IEO in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, February 4, 2022. REUTERS/Borja Suarez.

A Spanish business aims to construct the first commercial octopus farm next year, spurred on by rising seafood demand, but as scientists learn more about the enigmatic animals, some fear it will be an ethical and environmental disaster.

The news: “This is a global milestone,” said Roberto Romero, aquaculture director at Nueva Pescanova, the company pouring 65 million euros ($74 million) into the farm, which is pending environmental approval from local authorities.

Fisherman Pedro Cervino, 49, kills an octopus with a wooden stick inside of its mouth after fishing it with pots, at estuary of Ferrol in Mugardos, in Galicia, northwestern Spain February 8, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
  • Several octopuses stealthily moved themselves around a shallow indoor tank at the company’s research centre in Galicia, northwest Spain.
  • A mature specimen was pulled into a bucket by two technicians wearing waders for transfer to a new enclosure with five other octopuses.
  • Nueva Pescanova outperformed competitor enterprises in Mexico and Japan to achieve the conditions needed for industrial-scale breeding, based on decades of academic research.
  • The farm’s business motivations are evident, with plans to produce 3,000 tonnes per year for domestic and worldwide food chains by 2026 and create hundreds of employments on Gran Canaria.
  • According to data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the global octopus trade increased from $1.30 billion to $2.72 billion between 2010 and 2019, although landings only increased by 9 per cent to 380,000 tonnes.
David Galvez, chef at the Casa Gallega restaurant, prepares an octopus to serve after cooking it in the traditional Galician way in Madrid, Spain, February 2, 2022. REUTERS/Juan Medina

What’s going on: Attempts to farm octopus in the past have failed due to high mortality, and attempts to breed wild-caught octopus have resulted in hostility, cannibalism, and self-mutilation.

  • The center’s director, David Chavarrias, said that by optimising tank conditions, the company was able to eliminate hostility and breed five generations in captivity. “We have not found cannibalistic behaviour in any of our cultures,” he said.
  • However, not everyone is persuaded. Concern for their well-being has developed after the 2020 documentary “My Octopus Teacher” caught the public imagination with its tale of a filmmaker’s bond with an octopus.
  • Researchers at the London School of Economics decided last year, based on a study of 300 scientific publications, that octopuses are emotional beings capable of suffering and happiness, and that high-welfare farming is impossible.
David Galvez, chef at the Casa Gallega restaurant, prepares an octopus to serve after cooking it in the traditional Galician way in Madrid, Spain, February 2, 2022. REUTERS/Juan Medina

What’s important: Invertebrates are not included by European Union livestock welfare standards, and while Spain is increasing its animal protection legislation, octopuses are not expected to be included.

  • Nueva Pescanova has been tight-lipped on tank sizes, density, and feed, citing trade secrets. The animals are supposed to be continually observed to ensure their safety.
  • More research, according to Chavarrias, is needed to discover whether octopuses are actually intelligent. “We like to say that more than an intelligent animal, it is a responsive animal,” he said adding, “It has a certain capacity for resolve when faced with survival challenges.”
  • Despite growing concern about animal welfare, demand is booming, with Italy, Korea, Japan, and Spain, the world’s largest importer, leading the way. Natural fishing areas are being pushed to their limits.
  • “If we want to continue consuming octopus we have to look for an alternative … because the fisheries have already reached their limit,” said Eduardo Almansa, a scientist at Spain’s Oceanography Institute, which developed the technology used by Nueva Pescanova. “For now aquaculture is the only available option.”
  • Humans ingest half of the fish they eat. The industry has long marketed itself as a way to meet consumer demand while reducing pressure on fishing areas, but ecologists argue that this misrepresents the enterprise’s true environmental impact.
  • According to the WWF, around a third of the world’s fish catch is used to feed other animals, and rising demand for fishmeal for aquaculture is compounding stress on already stressed stocks.
  • Nueva Pescanova’s Chavarrias acknowledged the worry about sustainability and stated that the company was investigating the use of discarded fish products and algae as alternative feed, but that the results were too early to discuss.
  • Some campaigners argue that the remedy is far more straightforward: don’t eat octopus.
  • The project is awaiting permission from the environmental department of the Canary Islands.
  • When asked if the department would take into account rights-group opposition, a spokesman stated that “all required parameters would be taken into account.”
isherman Pedro Cervino, 49, stands on his boat called Olga, while he kills the octopus with a wooden stick inside of its mouth after fishing it with pots, at estuary of Ferrol in Mugardos, in Galicia, northwestern Spain February 7, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The impact: Traditional octopus fishermen are likewise leery of the enterprise, fearful that it will drive down prices and tarnish their reputation for high-quality seafood.

  • Every morning at 5 a.m., Pedro Luis Cervino Fernandez, 49, departs the Galician port of Murgados in quest of octopus. He is concerned that he will be unable to compete with modern agriculture.
  • “Big companies just want to look after their bottom line … they couldn’t care less about small companies like us,” he said on his small boat off the Galician coast.   
  • Staff at La Casa Gallega, a Madrid restaurant that specialises in pulpo a la gallega (seared octopus with boiled potatoes and plenty of paprika), were disappointed by the prospect of farmed produce a few hundred miles inland.
  • “I don’t think it will ever be able to compete with Galician octopus,” said head waiter Claudio Gandara. “It will be like other farmed fish … the quality is never the same.”
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