Amid growing demand for seafood, a Spanish company is planning to open the first commercial octopus farm sometime this year as scientists warn this could be an environmental disaster. The farm, to be located in the Canary Islands, would raise about a million octopuses per year for food, according to confidential documents accessed by BBC.
The company behind the initiative, Nueva Pescanova, is now waiting for official authorization from the Canary Islands' General Directorate of Fishing to start setting up the farm. While breeding octopuses in captivity is difficult, as larvae only eat live food, the company said in 2019 it had done research that proves this can actually be done.
The octopuses, solitary animals that mostly live in the dark, would be placed in tanks with other octopuses, sometimes under constant light, according to the BBC. They would be housed in 1,000 communal tanks in a building in the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Island and would be killed by being put in tanks of water kept at -3 degrees Celsius.
Octopuses are caught in the wild by using pots, lines and traps and are eaten all around the world. Around 350,000 tons of octopus are caught each year - 10 times more than in 1950, which puts pressure on populations. For the company, aquaculture is the best solution to ensure “a sustainable yield” and eventually repopulate the species.
Nueva Pescarnova aims at producing 3,000 tons of octopus a year, which means one million animals – with 10 to 15 octopuses living in each cubic meter of the tank, the BBC said. The first group of 100 octopuses, 70 males and 30 females, will be sourced from a research facility the company has in Spain, where it has been testing octopus aquaculture.
In a statement, the company said it has achieved a level of “domestication” in the species without indications of competition for food or cannibalism. They ensured they will have high welfare standards in place that “guarantees the correct handling” of the octopuses. Also, they said the animals won’t suffer or experience any pain during slaughter.
A species under threat
Octopuses are very intelligent animals and masters of camouflage. They can change the color and texture of their skin to hide from attackers, as well as open clamshells and maneuver rocks. Their lives came into the spotlight in 2020 with the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher about the link between a filmmaker and an octopus.
There are no welfare rules in place for octopus aquaculture as this has never been done before, with many expressing their concerns. The World Organization for Animal Health said this would result “in poor fish welfare” and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the main seafood certification scheme, proposed a ban if the cephalopod isn’t stunned beforehand.
Researchers led by Jonathan Birch, associate professor at the London School of Economics, carried out a review of over 300 scientific studies and found “very strong evidence” that octopuses feel can feel pain and distress. This led to them being recognized as “sentient beings” in the UK last year. Birch and the co-authors concluded octopus farming would be “impossible” and that killing them in ice wouldn’t be acceptable.
The campaign group Compassion in World Farming told BBC the authorities should block the construction of the farm, while the Eurogroup for Animals said the European Commission could address this by working on its welfare legislation. They have also expressed concern over the wastewater of the farm that would be sent back into the sea.