The first octopus farming in the Canary Islands has scientists questioning whether anything is fit for human consumption

In 2021, a study carried out by an American laboratory analyzed how octopuses responded to an injection of acetic acid in the arm. The animals, giving the impression of distress, observed and cared for the affected area, scratched the skin with their beaks, disliked the chamber in which they had experienced the effects of the injury and came to prefer a site where the injection was given. a local anesthetic.

Details of octopus farm in Gran Canaria surface: “They intend to kill them slowly and cruelly”


Experts, with this and other investigations, make it very clear: “When we see behavior like this, we can conclude that the animal feels pain”, points out Canarias Ahora Jonathan Birch, associate professor at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This academic, specialized in the evolution of social behavior, animal sensitivity and the relationship between sensitivity and well-being, led, along with other scientific colleagues, the review of more than 300 studies to determine whether there is finally solid evidence that cephalopod molluscs , like octopuses, are distressed by external stimuli.

The work’s conclusions led the UK government to recognize these species as “sentient beings” in the Animal Welfare Act of 2022 and set a precedent when considering the sentient capacity of invertebrates. Now, Birch and many other specialists in the field question the intention of the Spanish company Nueva Pescanova to create the world’s first octopus farm in the Canary Islands.

“Octopus farming is a controversial idea because in the wild they are solitary, aggressive and highly intelligent animals. They have very soft fur, are easily injured, and are not easy to kill humanely. Many people look at the evidence and think: this is not advisable. If attempted, there will be very serious welfare problems and high mortality”, considers the researcher.

The matter is much more complex, even so. Despite these cephalopods being able to solve puzzles, taste with their tentacles or expand their neural network beyond their heads, the demand to commercialize them is growing in very powerful economies such as the United States and Japan, as recognized by the European Union. Union (EU). And fishing production is not enough. In fact, it has been decreasing for a few years now.

Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) detail that octopus fishing reached its peak in 2014, with 4.85 million tons, but since then this value has progressively decreased until reaching 3.71 million in 2019.

Industry sources fear that this could lead to overexploitation of fisheries or unsustainable capture techniques for a product that has multiplied its value in recent decades: the average cost of a kilo of octopus in 2000 was two euros, while in 2018 it was 10.55, according to United Nations trade records reviewed in an investigation by the Scientific Reports.

“We can decide not to raise octopus, but we have to be aware that the demand is increasing and, therefore, we either change our eating habits or look for alternatives”, ponders Eduardo Almansa, researcher at the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (IEO). and member of the team of scientists who found an answer to improve the larval culture of these animals in captivity.

Nueva Pescanova knows all of this and that Spain is the world leader in octopus exports, alongside China and Japan. Hence its intention to invest around 65 million euros to obtain a little over 50,000 square meters in the Port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and produce around 3,000 tons per year. The total volume would be equivalent to more than 10% of national production and about 43% of all aquaculture in the Canaries.

The Galicia-based company’s plans had already generated a barrage of criticism from animal rights groups and experts since last year. But the targeting has intensified in recent weeks after the British agency BBCfollowing a leak of information from the organization Eurogroup for Animals, will inform about the foreseeable conditions in which the octopuses will be inside the farm.

According to him, the creatures would be housed in around 1,000 communal water tanks in a two-story building in the capital of Gran Canaria, so there would be between 10 and 15 individuals living together for every cubic meter, according to the international organization Compassion in World Farming, which claims to have studied the project. They also received artificial light for hours and were fed fish food. All these proposals were widely criticized.

“In crowded spaces, octopuses can become aggressive and even engage in cannibalism. Physically, they have no internal or external skeleton. This is why they are vulnerable to tank wounds. And in these totally artificial habitats they will suffer a lot, as they need various stimuli for their well-being”, defends Keri Tietge, responsible for the Eurogroup for Animals Octopus Project, by email.

In Mexico, a report by the Aquatic Life Institute found high rates of mortality and cannibalism at an octopus farm. mayan octopusa different species than the one Nueva Pescanova wants to sell (octopus vulgaris). The results alarmed Catalina López, director of the center in charge of the investigation, who fears that something similar could happen in the islands.

“Octopuses have a very complex hunting behavior, ranging from detecting live prey to apprehending it. This, of course, cannot be replicated on the farm, which causes them to attack other octopuses,” adds López.

On the other hand, Nueva Pescanova intends to slaughter the animals by placing them in containers with water at -3 degrees Celsius, a technique that the World Organization for Animal Health claims results in “poor fish welfare” and other studies have qualified as ” very questionable” as it can cause stress and potentially intense pain before death.

The EU approves of this methodology. But it is currently reviewing its own animal welfare regulations, which has given hope to those calling for a ban. “It’s a cruel technique because what it does is paralyze the octopus, but it doesn’t stun it. We think that when we put an animal on ice it dies because it doesn’t move, but the truth is that it is paralyzed because its metabolism drops and it ends up dying of suffocation”, adds Elena Lara, head of research at the international association Compassion in World Farming.

The controversy is even greater when one takes into account that the manipulation of octopuses in research or commercialization lacks laws. There are no regulations that state what is right or wrong or guidelines on how to do it. And even if an ethics committee wrote a manual of good practices, there would be no recourse in case of violation of these terms. The solution, in some parts of the world, is to veto the activity before it even starts, as some legislators in the US state of Washington have proposed.

“Octopuses have been shown to be sentient beings. Therefore, their welfare must be treated and protected like that of other animals. However, as it is a new industry, there are no standards for commercially farmed octopus. We ask that the current revision include a ban on the production and importation of farmed octopus”, summarizes Tietge.

In this context, while scientists and environmentalists call for the suspension of plans to create farms for these cephalopods (there are also initiatives in other countries around the world, such as Japan), Nueva Pescanova rigorously defends the work it has been developing. The general director of Aquaculture at the company, Roberto Romero, believes that “confusing” information is being disseminated, that the bibliography used to criticize the creation of octopuses in captivity is old and that it is a species capable of adapting to these conditions. conditions, according to what they saw in their explorations.

Romero states that, according to these same studies, they were able to verify that the microbiota of the cultured octopuses is the same as that of wild subjects, “which means that we manage to cultivate them in an environment and feed them in a certain way that there is no differences [entre ellos]”.

He also points out that they have developed a biomarker with which they will be able to measure the stress conditions of the animals. And it reiterates that much information about it is “incorrect”, such as the fact that it is a solitary species. “We’ve been working with them since they were born. And this is not the behavior at all”, he emphasizes.

The Galician company hopes that raising octopuses will ease the pressure on fishing in the wild. And he considers that “it should be a source of pride” because it is “a scientific milestone (…) taken from a Spanish research center on one of the most sought after species worldwide”. For Tietge, this argument by Nueva Pescanova is nothing more than “green wash”, as it is not so clear that aquaculture compensates for the damage caused by intensive fishing, according to studies. In addition to the risks involved in its implementation.

“The toxic waste produced on the farm, which includes that of animals, but also antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides, among other chemicals, generates what is known as excessive algal blooms. The algae consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water and this generates the so-called dead zones, where no living thing can survive,” explains Catalina López.

The Government of the Canary Islands is currently studying the environmental impact assessment of the Nueva Pescanova project. They point out that the plant will have a water filtration system to minimize any kind of effect. At the moment they don’t know when they will start the construction of the same.

The PACMA animal party has confirmed that it is closely following all news on this matter should it wish to pursue legal action. As confirmed by their coordinator in the Islands, Iris Sánchez, they have already presented several documents to the regional Executive to stop the process and have called for a new demonstration for April 23, which will have congregations all over the world.

“These animals will be condemned to a miserable life whose only end is death. This is the main argument. And we cannot bring more suffering into this world”, concludes Sánchez. “We learned that factory farming is very destructive to the environment and an unsustainable path. We cannot keep expanding to meet the demand for foods that are consumed as delicacies. This is not a question of food security”, reaffirms Keri Tietge.

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