Octopus farming: Sustainability solution or recipe for disaster?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for octopus has depleated wild stocks. Image: Debbie Lewis-Harrison
Demand for octopus has depleated wild stocks. Image: Debbie Lewis-Harrison

Related tags Seafood

Plans to develop octopus farming in Europe are under attack from a new report which claims this sea animal’s exceptional characteristics make it uniquely unsuitable for intensive farming.

The world is eating more octopus, reveals a new report released by Compassion in World Farming.

Landings of this culinary delicacy peaked in 2014 with a yearly catch of almost five million tonnes – more than eight times the catch of 1950.

Most octopus is caught in Asia and the Mediterranean, it says. In the EU, Italy consumes the most octopuses at over 60,000 tonnes per year, followed by Spain and Portugal, with much lower consumption in France and relatively little in the UK. 

Spain has seen a vast increase in landings since the 1960s, which has resulted in wild octopus populations decreasing since the 1990s and now being in an overfished state.

Given that the demand and consumption of octopus remains the same, Spain has become the main importer of octopus in Europe which accounts for 91% of the national supply. Recently, there has also been high demand for octopus in other markets, such as the United States and Japan. As a consequence, octopuses have been under increased pressure, leading to a decrease in wild populations.

octopus snip

Innovation in octopus farming 

What’s more, growing market demand and rising prices have made food industries particularly in Spain, Mexico, Japan and the US, eager to investigate the feasibility of intensively farming octopuses eager to farm octopuses in captivity.

Aquaculture advocates are of the view that farming octopuses is one way to ensure sustainability while satisfying demand.

Some governments, universities, and private companies have invested major resources in developing octopus farming systems.

Spain, supported in part by the European Union, has led the research into common octopus (or Octopus vulgaris) farming, first in open-ocean net cages and more recently in tanks on land. The Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) in Vigo has carried out the majority of published research on octopus farming. The research institute has made an exclusive agreement about the patented production method with Spanish company Nueva Pescanova, which has progressed the research at its facilities and plans to begin soon selling aquaculture octopus.

“We will continue to research how to continue improving the well-being of octopuses, studying and replicating their natural habitat, with the expectation of being able to sell aquaculture octopus starting in the year 2023,”​ Pescanova CEO Ignacio González revealed in 2019.

The objective of the company, it claims, is to continue exploring options in the face of the future marketing of octopus, as a response to the high international demand in the last few years, which has caused a growing scarcity of wild octopus and, therefore, a sustainability problem in the marine environment. The company says it is firmly committed to aquaculture as a method to reduce pressure on fishing grounds and ensure sustainable, safe, healthy, and controlled resources, complementing fishing. 

Technological breakthrough 

The breeding of octopus in captivity is one of the technological developments that has taken the longest to develop due to the special larval characteristics of this species.

According to Ricardo Tur, Principal Investigator on Cephalopods at Pescanova, “the octopus requires very specific marine conditions for development, such as the availability of food and optimal oceanographic factor connected to temperature, salinity, ocean currents, and the animal’s well-being”. ​Pescanova further claims the survival rate of a wild octopus is 0.0001% while, a figure it estimated can be raised to 50% in aquaculture.

In September 2021, Pescanova announced plans to open an octopus farm in a harbour in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, costing 65 million euros. The island’s authorities have declared this “the largest private investment in history in that area”.

‘Solitary creatures with complex welfare needs’

But factory farming practices restrict animals’ natural behaviours and lead to untold suffering, regardless of species, according to Compassion in World Farming. Its report, Octopus Factory Farming – A Recipe for Disaster​, sets out the mean reasons why it believes octopus farming should never be allowed to happen.

Octopuses are “highly intelligent, solitary animals, with a fragile physicality”,​ the report said, adding “They are a completely unsuitable species to be farmed, where they would be forced into crowded barren environments, with little or no opportunity to express their natural behaviour.”

As naturally solitary animals, octopuses would not fare well in the crowded conditions and high stocking densities that are typical of factory farm systems, the report added. “This can result in very poor welfare and creates the risk of aggression and territorialism that can lead to cannibalism.”

Octopuses are also known for their ‘extraordinary intelligence’, the analysis observed, and because of their natural inquisitiveness and tendency to explore, manipulate and control their environment, they would be easily susceptible to frustration in a factory farmed captivity environment.

Octopuses do not have internal or external skeletons and their skin is very fragile and easily damaged.  In a farm environment, octopuses are likely to be injured, either through physical contact by a handler or aggressive interactions with other octopuses, the report warned.

There is also currently no validated humane method of slaughter for octopuses. They have ‘complex nervous systems which make it very difficult to kill in accordance with requirements for humane slaughter’.

GettyImages octopus wild Tammy616
Through films such as the Oscar-winning 'My Octopus Teacher' the world is learniing more about the complex intelligence of octopuses. Pic Getty/Tammy616

Expansion needs to be 'stopped in its tracks'

What’s more, their carnivorous diet would require ‘vast numbers’ of wild fish to be caught to feed them, which makes farming them unsustainable and damaging to the environment, placing additional pressure on wild fish populations, and depleting the feeding grounds for other marine species. In addition, there are no European or national laws in place to regulate farming practices for Cephalopods, which means that octopuses are ‘entirely unprotected from suffering and inhumane slaughter methods’.

Dr Tracey Jones, Global Director of Food Business at Compassion in World Farming said: “Octopuses are sentient, highly intelligent, solitary creatures with complex welfare needs, and as such, are fundamentally unsuited to farming. Unlike other established production systems, commercial octopus farming does not yet exist and with the associated welfare and sustainability issues highlighted in this report, its expansion needs to be stopped in its tracks.

“Octopus farming requires the use of fishmeal and fish oils that depend on wild-caught fish, adding to the already huge ecological impacts of industrial aquaculture which goes against the new ‘Strategic Guidelines for the sustainable development of aquaculture’ adopted by the EU Commission in May 2021. We therefore urge industry to stop the development of octopus farming to prevent the unnecessary suffering of these intelligent and complex creatures and to avoid further environmental destruction.”

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