Por Claire Marshall
BBC environment and rural affairs correspondent
News that the world's first commercial octopus farm is closer to becoming a reality has been greeted with dismay by scientists and conservationists. They argue that these intelligent "sentient" creatures, considered capable of feeling pain and emotions, should never be commercially bred for food.
Playing with a giant Pacific octopus is part of Stacey Tonkin's job. When she lifts the lid of the tank to feed the creature known as DJ (short for Davy Jones), he often comes out of her cave to see her and sticks his arms to the glass. That is if she is in a good mood. Octopuses live to be four years old, so by the time they are one year old, she says they are the equivalent of a teenager.
"He definitely exhibits what you would expect a teenager to be: some days he's very grumpy and sleeps all day. Then other days he's very playful and active and wants to charge around his tank and show off."
Stacey is part of the team of five aquarists at the Bristol Aquarium and sees DJ react differently to each of them. She says that he will happily stand still and take his hand with his tentacles.
The keepers feed the octopus with mussels and prawns and bits of fish and crab. Sometimes they put the food in a dog toy so they can play with their tentacles and practice their hunting skills.
She says that her color changes with her mood. "When it's orange-brown, it's more of an active or playful feeling. Speckly is more curious and interested. So he'll swim around orange and brown, then come over and sit next to you and get all mottled and just looking at you, which is pretty amazing.
Stacey says that the octopus shows its intelligence through its eyes. "When you look at him and he looks at you, you can feel like there's something there."
The level of consciousness that Stacey witnesses first hand will be recognized in UK law through an amendment to theAnimal Welfare (Sensitivity) Bill.
The change has come after a team of expertsexamined through more than 300 scientific studiesand concluded that octopuses were "sentient beings" and that there was "strong scientific evidence" that they could experience pleasure, excitement and joy, but also pain, anguish and damage.
The authors said they were "convinced that high-welfare octopus farming was impossible" and that the government "might consider an import ban on farmed octopus" in the future.
But the octopus's tentacles sizzle in pans, coil on plates, and float in soups all over the world, from Asia to the Mediterranean and, increasingly, the United States. In South Korea, the creatures are sometimes eaten alive. The number of octopuses in the wild is declining and prices are rising. It is estimated that 350,000 tons are caught each year, more than 10 times the amount caught in 1950.
In this context, the race to discover the secret to breeding octopuses in captivity has lasted for decades. It's tough: larvae only eat live food and need a carefully controlled environment.
The Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova (NP) seems to have surpassed companies from Mexico, Japan and Australia, inwin the race. It has announced that it will begin marketing farmed octopus next summer, to sell it in 2023.
The company was based on research carried out by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (Instituto Español de Oceanografía), analyzing the reproduction habits of the common octopus - Octopus vulgaris. The NP retail park will be based inland, near the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, according toPortSEurope.
The farm is reported to produce 3,000 tons of octopus a year. The company has been quoted as saying it will help prevent so many octopuses from being caught in the wild.
Nueva Pescanova has refused to reveal details about the conditions in which the octopuses will be kept, despite numerous approaches from the BBC. The size of the tanks, the food they will eat, and how they will be killed are all secret.
Dr. Elena Lara, CIWF's director of research, is angry. "These animals are amazing animals. They are solitary and highly intelligent. So putting them in sterile tanks without cognitive stimulation is wrong for them."
She says anyone who has seen the 2021 Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher will appreciate it.
Octopuses have large, complex brains. Their intelligence has been demonstrated in numerous scientific experiments.have been observedusing coconuts and sea shells to hide and defend themselves and have shown that they can learn set tasks quickly. They have also managed to escape from aquariums and steal from traps set by people fishing.
What's more, they don't have skeletons to protect them and they are very territorial. Therefore, they could be easily damaged in captivity, and if there were more than one octopus in a tank, experts say they could start eating each other.
If the octopus farm opens in Spain, it appears the creatures raised there would receive little protection under European law. Octopuses (and other invertebrate cephalopods) are considered sentient beings, but EU legislation regulating farm animal welfare only applies to vertebrates (creatures that have backbones). Furthermore, according to CIWF, there is currently no scientifically validated method for humane slaughter.
agriculture in the sea
- Aquaculture is the term given to the farming of aquatic animals for food.
- Is hefastest growing food producing sectorin the world
- The global aquaculture market is growing at a rate of around 5% per year and is projected to be worth nearly $245bn (£184bn) by 2027.
- Some 580 aquatic species are cultivated worldwide.
- As the human population grows, global aquaculture could provide a vital source of food
- Fish kept in captivitytend to be more aggressive and contract more diseases
- The United Statesrecently published guidelinesrecognizing the "lack of good husbandry practices" and "research gaps" in the impact of aquaculture on animal and public health
Humans and octopuses had a common ancestor 560 million years ago, and evolutionary biologist Dr Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol is also concerned.
"We have an example of an organism that has evolved to have intelligence extremely comparable to ours." Their problem-solving abilities, playfulness and curiosity are very similar to those of humans, says Dr. Vinther, and yet they are otherworldly.
"This is potentially what it would look like if we ever encountered an intelligent alien from a different planet."
Nueva Pescanova states on its website that it is "decidedly committed to aquaculture [seafood farming] as a method to reduce pressure on fishing grounds and guarantee sustainable, safe, healthy and controlled resources, complementing fishing."
But CIWF's Dr. Lara argues that NP's actions are purely commercial and that the company's environmental argument is illogical. "That doesn't mean that fishermen will stop fishing [octopus]."
She argues that octopus farming could add to the increasing pressure on wild fish populations. Octopuses are carnivorous and need to eat two to three times their own weight in food to live. Currently, about a third of the fish caught around the planet becomes food for other animals, and about half of that goes to aquaculture. Thus, farmed octopus could feed on fishery products from stocks that are already overexploited.
Dr. Lara is concerned that consumers who want to do the right thing may think that eating farmed octopus is better than wild-caught octopus. "It's nothing more ethical: the animal will suffer all its life," he says. ANDa 2019 report- led by New York University associate professor of environmental studies Jennifer Jacquet - argues that banning octopus farming would not leave humans without enough to eat. It will mean "only that wealthy consumers will pay more for an increasingly scarce wild octopus," she says.
The entire debate is riddled with cultural complexities.
Industrial agriculture on land has evolved differently around the world. Pigs, for example, have beenshown to be smart- So what is the difference between a factory farmed pig that produces a bacon sandwich and a factory farmed octopus that is put into the common Spanish dish Pulpo a la Gallega?
Conservationists argue that the sensitivity of many farm animals was not known when intensive systems were established and that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated.
Because pigs have been domesticated for many years, we have enough knowledge about their needs and know how to improve their lives, says Dr. Lara. "The problem with octopuses is that they are completely wild, so we don't know exactly what they need or how we can provide a better life for them."
Given all we know about the intelligence of octopuses and the fact that they are not essential for food safety, should an intelligent and complex creature begin to be mass-produced for food?
"They are extremely complex beings," says Dr. Vinther. "I think as humans we need to respect that if we want to grow them or eat them."
Follow Claire on Twitter@BBCMarshall
- animal welfare
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