Against Octopus Farming

2021-12-25 • 10 min read

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.[1]

– Authors of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

The Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova is on the cusp of opening up the world’s first octopus farm near Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. It plans to begin farming next summer, with farmed octopuses entering the market in 2023. The farm will apparently produce three thousand tonnes of Octopus vulgaris yearly; by my count, given that one O. vulgaris weighs five to ten kilograms, that makes 300,000 to 600,000 octopuses killed each year. (In Spain, where a lot of people eat octopus, two to five times that number is caught each year in the wild.[2])

Octopuses have impressive minds, more so than many vertebrates. Half of their numerous neurons are located in their strong, tentacled arms, which seem almost like creatures of their own.[3] (Godfrey-Smith speculates that octopuses may need to focus in order to act in a coordinated way with all of their arms, and that their default state is one where the arms kind of explore independently.[4] This may incidentally make it difficult to painlessly slaughter octopuses – if you just decapitate them, you still have only destroyed half their nervous system.) Octopuses even seem to show emotion, although it’s hard to tell given our tendency to anthropomorphise. Take a look at this video where an octopus, released after having been stranded on a beach, seemingly seeks contact with its rescuer before swimming away. Or this video, a scene from a documentary where an octopus seemingly plays with a shoal of fish and then seemingly hugs a human diver.

Screenshot of video of octopus by Pei Yan Heng.

Jacquet et al. gives us a suitable backdrop:

Octopuses stand out among invertebrates for their complex behavior. They are capable of problem-solving, mimicking their surroundings using color changes that take place on a scale of seconds, outwitting predatory sharks, discriminating individual humans, engaging in playful behavior, and hunting in response to cooperative signals sent by fish. As these patterns of behavior suggest, octopuses (as well as some other cephalopods) have sophisticated nervous systems and large brains.

[…]

Octopuses exhibit cognitive and behavioral complexity, and they appear capable of experiencing pain and suffering. The neuroscientists who wrote the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, considered to be the first formalization of the scientific consensus about the consciousness of several nonmammal species, singled out octopuses as the sole invertebrate capable of conscious experience (although it remains possible that other invertebrates might also be sentient). Widespread observations of octopus as curious and exploratory creatures have been confirmed by experimental work. Once octopuses have solved a novel problem, they retain long-term memory of the solution. One study found that octopuses retained knowledge of how to open a screw-top jar for at least five months. They are also capable of mastering complex aquascapes, conducting extensive foraging trips, and using visual landmarks to navigate.

Although there has been little research on the welfare of octopuses in farmed settings, existing evidence suggests intensive farming systems are likely to be associated with high mortality rates and increased aggression, parasitic infection, and a host of digestive tract issues. Beyond their basic biological health and safety, octopuses are likely to want high levels of cognitive stimulation, as well as opportunities to explore, manipulate, and control their environment. Intensive farm systems are inevitably hostile to these attributes. Aquaculture depends on tightly controlled and monotonous environments, with constant ambient conditions, simplified and sterile enclosures, and rigid feeding schedules, aimed at supporting high stocking densities. Many octopus species appear to be largely asocial and show little tolerance of other individuals of the same species. Farming such species that, in addition, are carnivorous will almost inevitably require that individuals be kept isolated in small containers, with no scope for environmental enrichment and very poor overall well-being.[5]

I have written elsewhere what I think about treating animals in this way, but let me try to summarise my view.[6] (If you don’t feel like reading amateurish moral philosophy, feel free to skip the next five to seven paragraphs.)

I think this. Things are valuable to us because we value them. That is, a specific thing is valuable to some specific individual who values it. For example, I may value the literary works of Marcel Proust, which are probably gibberish to some people (and certainly to octopuses). Some people value divine beings, though I think no such beings exist. Cows value grazing on fresh meadows, which seems pretty boring (and unappetising) to us humans. Value is conditioned on a valuer. In this sense it seems subjective, but if we want to reason about ethics, we probably want some kind of objective, or unconditional, value – something we can all agree is worth pursuing – what we sometimes call “the good”. Is there such a thing?

I think so. Value, if it is conditional in this way, cannot be infinitely conditional – it has to be grounded in something. It can’t be turtles all the way down. The works of Marcel Proust may be good for me because they are beautiful, say, and beauty may be good for me because it puts me in a pleasant state of mind, and so on. But eventually there needs to be some terminal value to ground the others. Because value exists because there are individuals who value things, we can trace all value to those individuals, meaning unconditional value must be grounded in the act of valuing, in seeing some things as good and others as bad. The act of experiencing things as good or bad sort of conjures value into existence, and so it is in creatures who do so experience things that unconditional value resides.

When we act rationally in order to choose an end as worthy of pursuit, we almost by definition consider that goal to be unconditionally good. It would be self-contradictory not to do so. Otherwise our choice of end would be arbitrary. So everyone, when they choose to seek some end, take that end to be unconditionally good. But you and I are no different in this regard, so there is no reason that we should not consider each other’s ends unconditionally good, too. That is why I think humans generally ought to be valued, and why their good is an unconditional good – because this is a commitment we make when rationally choosing ends to seek.

Humans are not the only animal to value things in this way. Some things are good or bad for octopuses, and they, too, experience the world and things in it as good or bad for them. They, too, move through the world with purpose, pursuing ends. Some things allow them to function well and achieve their goals, but other things prevent them from so functioning and achieving. When they are hurt, they are impaired and experience pain – bad. When they eat, they are nourished and experience pleasure – good. (Of course, octopuses don’t choose their ends rationally, but that only means that they are not committed to value us, not the reverse.)

What I want is a world where ends-seeking creatures attain the things they find good and escape the things they find bad, and the way to bring about such a world is to take others’ chosen ends (and freedom to choose ends) into account when we act. Growing up in a tank, being crowded with its kin and being slaughtered after reaching maturity is clearly bad for an octopus. When we treat octopuses like this, we are not taking into account what is good or bad for them, and are even hindering them from pursuing their ends.

(We don’t know for sure the exact conditions these octopuses would be raised under, because Nueva Pescanova hasn’t responded to enquiries about it. This is pretty concerning. There are no regulations in the EU for octopus farming like there is for factory farming of other animals. You are apparently free to breed, raise and slaughter them in almost any manner you see fit.)

Even if you don’t subscribe to the version of Kantian deontology that I find convincing, you can still prefer mechanised octopus farming not to be a thing that ever exists. All you have to do is (1) want to reduce suffering, (2) recognise that octopuses can suffer and (3) recognise that being farmed in the way that octopuses would be would involve significant amounts of suffering.[7] (The pleasure gained by those who eat octopuses is surely tiny in proportion to the suffering that would go into farming them. There are plenty of other tasty and affordable foods available for octopus-eaters, some of them even vegetarian or vegan.) And though it is true that we already do these things for other sentient creatures, like cows, pigs and chicken, it is also true that once an industry is established, it is that much harder to destroy it; it is probably more feasible never to let it get a foothold, so to speak, at all. In a way, this will show how much of resistance to welfare improvements in factory farming is a product of status quo bias, because if we humans, knowing what we know now about factory farming, actively choose to open up a new vein in this mountain of horror, we show that we are not merely stuck in some suboptimal equilibrium but will actively seek it out given the opportunity.

Apparently the technology of octopus farming is hard to get right. But compared to the domestication of cows, pigs and chicken – as well as the subsequent industrialisation of farming practices – the science seems to be proceeding at a relatively brisk pace. Here is Jacquet et al. again, writing in 2019:

As early as the 1970s, one researcher described the problems to be overcome in the case of cultivating octopus as “cannibalism, containment, dependence upon live food and the death of gravid females before laying second generation eggs in the laboratory”. Despite these challenges, some governments, universities, and private companies have recently invested major resources in farming octopus.

Spain, supported in part by the European Union, has led the way. Spanish production of O. vulgaris now occurs, at least experimentally, in tanks on land, in open-ocean net pens, and on “ranches” where wild-caught octopuses are raised in captivity. The Spanish Institute of Oceanography in Vigo has carried out the majority of published research on octopus farming, but research is also occurring in Portugal and Greece, where the Mediterranean-based company Nireus Aquaculture has funded octopus-farming research. Octopus ranching is being tried in Italy and Australia as well. A farm in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico has reportedly successfully farmed another species, Octopus maya, and attempts to farm octopus are under way in other parts of Latin America, including Chile. In China, up to eight different species of octopus are now being experimentally farmed. In Japan, the seafood company Nissui reported hatching octopus eggs in captivity in 2017 and is predicting a fully farmed market-ready octopus by 2020. Many scientists are contributing to the tools and technology to make genetic modifications that may accelerate industrial aquaculture of octopus and other types of cephalopods.[8]

Nueva Pescanova first managed to produce octopuses in captivity in 2019 when the eggs of an octopus named Lourditas, herself born in captivity, hatched.[9] There are now five generations of these octopuses bred in captivity.[10] Lourditas was named after Lourdes, because in order to breed octopuses in captivity nothing short of a miracle was needed.[11] But apparently miracles do happen.

Objection 1: maybe factory farming octopuses will reduce the number of octopuses caught in the wild? This does seem likely to me – factory farming of land animals have certainly reduced hunting (conditional on population size) in the past – but as much suffering as there may be for octopuses in the wild and especially in being caught and handled by fisheries, it still seems nowhere near as bad as being raised in an overcrowded tank with minimal stimulation (or alternatively alone in a tiny tank with minimal stimulation).

There is also the question about overall numbers. An economically viable factory farming system would in principle allow for vastly larger numbers of octopuses to be raised and killed for food each year than the oceans support today. It also seems possible that the efficiency gains of factory farming would reduce the price of octopus meat, in turn leading to increased overall consumption, but that is only speculation at this point.

Objection 2: maybe reducing the number of octopuses caught in the wild is good for aquatic life generally, e.g. via reduced pressure on traditional fishing grounds. This is the line that Nueva Pescanova have taken, even using the argument to apply for a EU grant. I am not at all an expert in this, but this seems possible to me. How this shakes out depend on a lot of details that I don’t know. It’s worth noting that octopuses are carnivorous – they will need to be fed a lot of fish or crustaceans or similar, and the fish/crustaceans will need to come from somewhere too. Farming and eating octopuses is inefficient compared to eating fish/crustaceans directly in the same way that farming and eating pigs is compared to eating grains or other plants directly. But here is where most of my uncertainty around this whole thing lies.

In my view, of course, eating, catching and farming octopuses are all unconditionally wrong, so while sustainability considerations are important, they don’t change my moral calculation. I have eaten squid a few times in my life, and possibly octopus too – I can’t remember. Either way, I am sorry that it happened. But I just did not know any better. I had not yet awakened from my slumber. I like to think that this was also humanity during the last hundred-plus years. Yes, we created the factory farms. But we did not know any better. We had not yet awakened from our slumber. Now we are awakening, we learn, and ever so slowly we improve.

Footnotes #

  1. Low, P., Panksepp, J., Reiss, D., Edelman, D., Van Swinderen, B., & Koch, C. (2012, July). The Cambridge declaration on consciousness. In Francis crick memorial conference, Cambridge, England (pp. 1-2). ↩︎

  2. Sauer, W. H., Gleadall, I. G., Downey-Breedt, N., Doubleday, Z., Gillespie, G., Haimovici, M., … & Pecl, G. (2021). World octopus fisheries. Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture, 29(3), 279-429. ↩︎

  3. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2019). Octopus experience. Animal Sentience, 4(26), 18. ↩︎

  4. ibid. ↩︎

  5. Jacquet, J., Franks, B., Godfrey-Smith, P., & Sánchez-Suárez, W. (2019). The case against octopus farming. Issues in Science and Technology, 35(2), 37-44. ↩︎

  6. The paragraphs that follow are heavily indebted to Christine M. Korsgaard, who herself builds on the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

    Korsgaard, C. (2004). Fellow creatures: Kantian ethics and our duties to animals. The tanner lectures on human values.

    Korsgaard, C. M., & Korsgaard, C. M. (1996). Creating the kingdom of ends. Cambridge University Press.

    But see also e.g.:

    Bukoski, M. (2018). Korsgaard’s Arguments for the Value of Humanity. Philosophical Review, 127(2), 197-224. ↩︎

  7. For more information about this, see this recent report by Compassion in World Farming. ↩︎

  8. Jacquet, J., Franks, B., Godfrey-Smith, P., & Sánchez-Suárez, W. (2019). The case against octopus farming. Issues in Science and Technology, 35(2), 37-44. ↩︎

  9. My source here is an article in El País. ↩︎

  10. ibid. ↩︎

  11. ibid. ↩︎