Why scientists are making the case against octopus farming

Scientists are making the case against octopus farming, arguing that industrial-scale octopus farms could leave wild populations untouched while depleting stocks of other ocean animals they rely on for food. Credit: iStock / TheSP4N1SH, February 2019

iStock / TheSP4N1SH

Scientists are making the case against octopus farming, arguing that industrial-scale octopus farms could leave wild populations untouched while depleting stocks of other ocean animals they rely on for food. Credit: iStock / TheSP4N1SH, February 2019

iStock / TheSP4N1SH

A new study argues that industrial-scale octopus farms could leave wild populations untouched while depleting stocks of other ocean animals they rely on for food.

A group of scientists is urging the seafood industry to halt efforts to industrialize octopus farming.

Global stocks of squid and octopus are in serious decline. At the same time, demand is up. As a result, seafood businesses are in something of an eight-armed race to industrialize octopus farming. The undertaking, if successful, could be highly lucrative. But its economic benefit may be heavily outweighed by its potential adverse ethical and environmental consequences, according to an analysis published in the journal Issues in Science and Technology last week.

Now, at this point you might be wondering to yourself, there’s such a thing as farmed octopus? The answer is “not yet.” Currently, octopus aren’t farmed at industrial scale. So, the next logical question might be, then why would scientists want to stop that from happening?

Before I go any further, let’s get some basics cleared up.

Most of the fish and shellfish we eat are farmed rather than fished. That means they’re not caught in the open ocean, but instead are raised in ponds inland or in containment pens in natural bodies of water. It’s a cultivation method known as aquaculture.

The global appetite for octopus is only growing.
We’re farming more than we are fishing these days in part because our demand for seafood has increased. A typical American ate 16 pounds of fish and shellfish in 2017, up by over a pound from the year prior, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As I mentioned, farmed fish makes up more than half of total seafood consumed.

But octopuses are a different beast. They aren’t so easy to farm. That’s because their life cycle is incredibly delicate and difficult to recreate in a tank setting. Here’s how they grow in the wild: A mother octopus (not to be confused with octomom) spends up to a year nurturing tens of thousands of tiny fertilized eggs. Eventually, they spawn into a not-quite-baby-octopus-yet state called “paralarvae,” which the mother then—get this—blows toward the surface of the water with her final, dying breath.

In nature, very few paralarvae (sometimes as few as two) go on to become adult octopuses because of their profound vulnerability in this young phase. The low ratio of paralarvae that actually make it to adulthood per tens of thousands of eggs means it’s difficult to scale octopus farming, such as it is, up.

But that doesn’t stop people from wanting to eat the animal, as many do and have done around the world for generations, particularly in Asia and Europe.

In Japan, octopus meat is added to a mixture of flour, dashi, and egg before being fried into savory, donut hole-like balls of takoyaki. In Spain, whole octopus is popularly prepared through rapid dipping in boiling water, followed by a period of simmering, then seasoned and served with potatoes. In Korea, some like it raw.

“Overfishing on the high seas is becoming a serious problem.”
And the global appetite for octopus is only growing. Demand is on the rise in “all major markets,” including the United States, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in 2017. Undercurrent News credited the bump in American consumption of octopus to its perceived health benefits and the booming popularity of poke, especially among millennials. In December 2018, market research company Technavio projected that consumption of octopus meat would increase 3 percent worldwide over the next four years.

But while demand is trending up, the global harvest of octopus is on the decline. In the 1970s, annual catch hovered around about 99,000 tons per year. In recent years, that number has dropped by almost half—to approximately 44,000 tons annually.

“Supplies of both octopus and squid are getting tighter,” FAO said in a report issued last month. “There is now an urgent need to improve the management of these resources. Overfishing on the high seas […] is becoming a serious problem. Demand is rising globally, and prices are going through the roof.”

“Octopus farming would increase, not alleviate, pressure on wild aquatic animals,” wrote Jennifer Jacquet, professor of environmental studies at New York University and lead author of the analysis. “Given the depleted state of global fisheries and the challenges of providing adequate nutrition to a growing human population, increased farming of carnivorous species such as octopus will act counter to the goal of improving global food security.”

Jacquet’s point is notable because it challenges traditional assumptions about aquaculture. Proponents tend to tout cultivation under controlled conditions as a sustainable alternative to catching fish in the wild. It’s an idea that many aquaculture businesses use in their marketing language.

However, a closer look at the food chain indicates that aquaculture may actually increase pressures on wild fisheries. Like most seafood, including salmon and shrimp, octopuses are carnivores. That means they need to consume other aquatic animals in order to sustain themselves as a farmed species. When we consider the impact of farming land animals, we often talk about the exorbitant amount of soy or corn feed required to keep them healthy and growing. But when it comes to farming seafood, feed itself is comprised of smaller animals that need to be fed, too.

“Around one-third of the global fish catch is turned into feed for other animals, roughly half of which goes to aquaculture. Many fishmeal fisheries are subject to overfishing and are declining,” the analysis noted.

Octopus farming, if successful, may leave wild octopus populations untouched, but would still exacerbate the depletion of many other fish used for feed, a factor that many of us don’t consider when thinking about the potential benefits of aquafarming.

The intelligence of our eight-armed friends is well-documented.
“One thing that fundamentally separates aquaculture from terrestrial agriculture is that, for many species, we one hundred percent rely on ocean animals to feed those animals,” Jacquet said in a phone interview. “What bothers me is that people think that aquaculture is the solution [to overfishing] when currently it’s actually making the problem worse.”

For some, octopus farming also raises ethical concerns. The intelligence of our eight-armed friends is well-documented: Octopuses have expressed a range of complex, human-like behaviors, from cunning to problem-solving to what appears to be gratitude—qualities that aren’t exactly nurtured in larger-scale farming environments.

Jacquet was joined by co-authors Becca Franks, a visiting professor at NYU; Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science at the University of Sydney and author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness; and Walter Sánchez-Suárez, a researcher at the University of Sussex. In writing the analysis, the authors hoped to convince fellow researchers to learn from the mistakes of the industrialized food system, rather than repeat them.

But some seafood companies are predicting that large-scale octopus farming is within (forgive me) arms’ reach. In 2013, an aquaculture collective in Mexico reported that it had successfully harvested octopus from eggs. In 2017, a Japanese seafood technology company, Nissui, estimated that it could begin selling fully-farmed octopus by 2020.

“If you build it, they will come,” makes an apt idiom of the potential of octopus farming. But Jacquet and her fellow scientists are urging us not to pretend that scale, while good for some, is best for all.

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Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.