Photograph by Greg Lecoeur, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The common octopus, O. vulgaris, is found around the world. As the popularity of eating octopus has grown, efforts to farm them commercially are raising questions about their welfare in captivity.

Photograph by Greg Lecoeur, Nat Geo Image Collection

The world wants to eat more octopus. Is farming them ethical?

Both highly intelligent and a culinary delicacy, the animals are at the center of a controversy that pits the conservation of wild octopuses against the ethics of mass-breeding them.

In a damp, darkened shoreside laboratory near the Yucatán hamlet of Sisal, Carlos Rosas Vázquez lifts one of the scores of small conch shells littering a black plastic tank. He coaxes its wary occupant out onto his hand. A mouse-size octopus with tentacles like knotted threads, ghostly pale save for big, black eyes, wriggles across his palm and twines around his fingers. Even Rosas, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who's worked for years to turn creatures like this into a profitable commodity, delights in its prehensile grace. “Maravilloso!” he murmurs.

Around the world, octopuses have long been objects of desire and wonder. Now they’re becoming an ethical flashpoint, as researchers like Rosas puzzle out ways to make commercial octopus farming feasible and, they claim, relieve growing pressure on wild populations. Not good, a new contingent of critics contends: Octopus aquaculture will further deplete marine ecosystems and needlessly torment these most sensitive and intelligent of invertebrates.

Long staples of Mediterranean and East Asian cuisines, octopus (pulpo in Spanish, tako in Japanese) is now a global delicacy, buoyed by the popularity of sushi, tapas, poke, and desire for high-quality protein. Demand and prices have surged in recent years, even as catches have fallen in traditional octopus meccas such as Spain and Japan and as warming, acidifying seas threaten further declines.

At a glance, therefore, these tasty tentacle bearers seem ripe for aquaculture. For many people, however, they mean much more than tasty tidbits. “People have this weird love affair with octopuses,” says biologist Rich Ross at the California Academy of Science, in San Francisco. “I know those who would never eat them but have no qualms about eating pigs, and there's abundant evidence that pigs are highly intelligent.”

Pigs, however, aren’t as graceful, mysterious, and charismatic as octopuses. Big brains, complex behavior, and precocious curiosity have made these improbable mollusks mediagenic poster creatures for animal rights and welfare—and the subject of an emerging battle over the ethics and potential environmental impacts of raising them for food. (Also read about the growing trend for pet octopuses.)

That debate caught fire last year when Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, and several co-authors posted an essay, “The Case Against Octopus Farming,” that quickly went viral. It argues that the grim “ethical and environmental consequences” of industrial meat production “should lead us to ask whether we want to repeat mistakes already made with terrestrial animals with aquatic animals, especially octopus.”

Most wild octopus fisheries are still more artisanal than industrial, using small boats and traditional techniques. Thousands of fishermen in Mexico's Yucatán and Campeche states lure their prey by dangling crabs from long bamboo poles. But the global catch—420,000 metric tons a year, the FAO reports—goes largely to affluent consumers in South Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and, lately, the United States. Pulpo a la gallega may be the national dish of Spain's Galicia region, but Galicia imports 20 times as much octopus as it catches.

“Today, I go to the sea and I get 10 or 20 kilograms of octopus,” one fisherman in nearby Portugal told a newspaper, “when in other years it was more than a hundred kilos [220 pounds].” He and his comrades urged a temporary fishery closure to help stocks recover.

“I hardly go out to fish anymore,” Yucatán fisherman Antonio Cob Reyes told me. “The sea is getting crowded—more fishermen, less octopus.” Morocco and Mauritania, two main producers, have limited catches to protect stocks.

Aquaculture advocates say that farming octopuses is the only way to ensure sustainability while satisfying demand. Some aspects of the octopus life cycle make them attractive aquaculture candidates. Like salmon, they're short-lived and fast-growing; most common species live one to two years, a few jumbo varieties three to five. They can add 5 percent of body weight in a day. But that life cycle presents one big hurdle: sustaining delicate planktonic octopus hatchlings, called paralarvae, until they can begin this rocketing growth.

The baby octopus conundrum

In 2015, an Australian firm reported remarkable success at battery-farming the common Sydney octopus. But it failed at raising paralarvae and reverted to ranching—growing wild-caught octopuses to market size in aquatic pens, a system also used in Spain.

The only octoculture effort in the U.S., Kanaloa Octopus Farms, on Hawaii's Big Island, has hit the same “bottleneck,” as founder Jake Conroy calls it. Kanaloa is now working on growing zooplankton to make a feed that will sustain the paralarvae. It pays the bills by charging visitors to see, touch, and feed the grown animals. Conroy, a biologist who turned to aquaculture to escape the research-funding rat race, admits that such close encounters don’t encourage more consumption. “Nine times out of ten we wind up convincing people not to eat octopus,” he says. “We’re fine with that.”

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In 2017 the Japanese fishing giant Nisui announced that it had “closed the life cycle”—raising successive cultured generations, which frees aquaculture from dependence on wild captures—and anticipated commercial production in 2020. Contacted in January, Nisui would say only, “Unfortunately we are still in research and development stage.”

Today, the multinational, Galicia-based fishing and seafood firm Grupo Nueva Pescanova, building on work by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, is doing what may be the most advanced octoculture research, though it doesn't anticipate commercial production until 2023. Ricardo Tur Estrada, Pescanova’s research chief and a veteran of the institute, says it has not only raised successive generations of Octopus vulgaris, the Atlantic common octopus, but also delayed the kill switch on octopus lifespan.

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This young Atlantic common octopus was photographed at Pescanova Biomarine Center, the research and development lab of Pescanova, a Spain-based multinational seafood company developing octopus aquaculture.

In the wild, octopuses breed once, then cease hunting and waste away; the females spend their last weeks tending their eggs. (Nautiluses are the only members of the cephalopod family, which also includes squid and cuttlefish, known to breed repeatedly.) Now, with careful feeding and “ideal conditions,” Tur says, “we save the life of the female, which has never been documented before.” This summer they plan to try re-breeding one resuscitated female, herself captive-bred. She will then be two years old, about twice the average O. vulgaris lifespan.

Furthermore, Tur says, “we have eliminated the competition and cannibalism” that are octopus hallmarks, and have identified a previously unreported fourth stage in the common octopus’s life cycle—transparent alevin, a transitional stage between paralarvae and fully formed juveniles. He thinks this stage, when the animals learn to use their arms and develop their remarkable color-changing pigmentation, will provide key biological insights. It “could also be the perfect stage to isolate stem cells” in order to understand, and perhaps mimic, octopuses’ ability to regenerate lost limbs.

Across the Atlantic, Carlos Rosas has an easier time with the octopus life cycle. Octopus maya, the species he works with, is one of several that skip the paralarval stage and hatch as fully formed mini-octopuses.

But he faces another challenge: shoestring budgets, typical of Mexican research. His response has been to enlist local women—wives of octopus fishermen—to clean and maintain his lab's dozens of tanks in exchange for all the marketable octopus produced. These conscientious lab assistants, who have formed a small cooperative, remove newly laid eggs, kill and butcher the mothers, and raise the new generations for study and harvest. “The data is for us, the octopuses for you!” Rosas says, joking with two co-op members. Impressed at the results, their husbands and sons have begun joining the co-op.

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This young Mexican four-eyed octopus, O. maya, is from biologist Carlos Rosas Vázquez's co-op in Sisal, Mexico.

The operation is artisanal. For feeding, the keepers pack shrimp paste and fish-waste meal into hundreds of small clam shells, which mimic wild prey and reduce food waste. Their product commands a premium price, about $12 a pound; they can sell the tender undersize octopuses that chefs favor but fishing rules protect, and supply octopus during the six months when fishing is forbidden. Rosas and the Yucatán government hope this experiment will seed more octopus farms, providing jobs for struggling communities and a buffer as warming reduces wild catches.

‘Particularly ill-suited to a life in captivity’

In “The Case Against Octopus Farming,” Jennifer Jacquet and her co-authors—Becca Franks, of New York University, animal activist Walter Sanchez-Suarez, and Australian science philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith—cite the general ills of industrial husbandry and aquaculture. They point to the stress and monotony of confinement; the “high mortality rates and increased aggression, parasitic infection [and] digestive tract issues” associated with intensive farming; the wasteful “feeding fish with fish” that humans could eat themselves, depleting the seas.

Octopuses, they argue, are “particularly ill-suited to a life in captivity and mass-production, for reasons both ethical and ecological.” Confinement is especially cruel for animals with such “sophisticated nervous systems and large brains” that are capable of mimicry, play, sophisticated navigation and hunting strategies, and what Jacquet calls “meaningful lives.” Aquaculture boosters “don't take into account how rich the intertidal zone is,” referring to the profusely varied habitat where common octopus species forage. “They can't reproduce that.”

Rosas concedes the importance of humane conditions and enrichment (such as conch shells for them to hide in) and says his lab tries to provide those. “We're working to reduce the octopuses' sensitivity to pain when we sacrifice them,” he adds—numbing them with cold water, then cutting quickly through their brains. “We'll join a project with the Cephalopod Laboratory in Naples to determine how best to kill them humanely.”

Rosas and Tur (both avowed octophiles whose offices teem with octopus toys) use scraps and discards from local fish processors for octopus feed. Kanaloa Octopus's Jake Conroy has had less success with fishery waste but contemplates using invasive fish such as pink groupers as feed.

Such sustainable sourcing may be more feasible for experimental and artisanal projects like theirs than for the marine factory farms Jacquet warns against. Nevertheless, Tur vehemently disputes her contention that it takes at least three pounds of food to grow one pound of octopus. He claims a two-to-one conversion ratio.

“That's not sustainable, that's less unsustainable,” replies Jacquet, adding that even if researchers “reduce other ecological impacts, farming octopus would still be unethical.” It is after all a luxury product, unneeded for food security; banning octoculture would “mean only that affluent consumers will pay more for increasingly scarce, wild octopus.”

That, Conroy says, is why octopus should be farmed: to relieve wild stocks. “Aquaculture is kind of plan B,” he says. “In a perfect world, we would all be in agreement, but it's very difficult to convince people to go vegetarian. If we take the purist view, and the wild population gets threatened or damaged beyond repair, where will we be?”

Rosas and Tur invoke other justifications for farming octopuses: community development and basic research. Tur, who like Conroy turned to aquaculture because research funding was scarce, believes studying octopuses will yield big dividends in antibiotics (from their protective mucous coating), neuron and tissue regeneration, and robotics. Already, robot designers have copied their color-changing elastic skin, and mimicked their sensitive suckered tentacles for gripping and surgical navigation. An Italian lab has even invented an octobot that can explore underwater crannies.

Octoculture advocates and opponents do agree on one thing: the remarkable capacities of these marvelous mollusks. So far they haven't spoken directly with each other. “It's not that I would be opposed to being in dialogue,” Jacquet says, “but I don't want to be too persuaded by the personalities of individuals in the industry.” So their debate continues at second hand, even as the orders for tako sashimi and pulpo a la gallega roll in.

Eric Scigliano is the author or co-author of Love, War and Circuses, Michelangelo’s Mountain; Flotsametrics and the Floating World; The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon, Modern Science, and A Race to Save the World. Follow him on Twitter.