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Why a Planned Octopus Farm in Spain has Animal Rights Activists Up in Arms

Why a Planned Octopus Farm in Spain has Animal Rights Activists Up in Arms

A Spanish multinational corporation’s plan to open the world’s first octopus farm is causing controversy among animal welfare groups.

Last week, reports of plans for the world’s first octopus farm began circulating around the media after confidential planning proposal documents were released to the BBC by the organization Eurogroup for Animals. The octopus farm is planned to open in Spain’s Canary Islands by multinational corporation Nueva Pescanova. But will this operation be unethical for the octopuses?

Several animal welfare organizations seem to think so. In addition to Eurogroup for Animals, Compassion in World Farming and the Animal Rights Initiative have raised deep concerns about the planned octopus farm. These groups are calling for the plans to be scrapped as the proposal documents revealed “the animal cruelty and environmental consequences” it would cause.

Although several varieties of fish, including carp, catfish, cod and salmon, are farmed, octopus farming would be different. Here’s why.

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Animal Welfare (or Lack Thereof) on an Octopus Farm

Although Nueva Pescanova denies the octopuses will suffer, many others are skeptical. In the wild, common octopuses are typically solitary animals who are highly territorial. They spend time interacting with their environment, in which they are capable of problem-solving and have the capacity to experience complex emotions. They hunt a varied diet of many marine species, typically at night, and are accustomed to the dark and prefer making their home in crevices where they can easily hide.

By contrast, Nueva Pescanova’s planned octopus farm would keep octopuses in crowded communal tanks, at times under constant light, where they would be unable to express their natural behaviors like hiding and hunting. Confining the animals to crowded tanks would result in poor animal welfare, aggression toward other octopuses, territorialism and even cannibalism, according to a report titled, “Uncovering the Horrific Reality of Octopus Farming.”

Plans also note that octopuses will be killed by “ice slurry,” which has been identified as a highly inhumane slaughtering method that is scientifically proven to cause considerable pain, suffering and prolonged death. Jonathan Birch, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, led a review of more than 300 scientific studies that concluded that killing octopuses in ice slurry would not be an acceptable method of killing in a lab.

The aquaculture industry has already begun shifting away from this slaughtering method, including a requirement in Canada’s National Farm Animal Care Council’s (NFACC) Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Salmonids to transition to acceptable methods by 2025. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the state of Washington have proposed banning commercial farming of octopuses before it could even start in America.

Environmental Consequences of Octopus Farming

Along with the animal cruelty concerns, animal welfare groups are worried about the environmental impacts of octopus farming. Octopuses produce nitrogen and phosphates as waste, and the wastewater produced by the farm would be pumped back into the sea. “The water entering and leaving the plant will be filtered so that it will have no impact on the environment,” Nueva Pescanova told the BBC.

Additionally, because octopuses are carnivorous animals, they would need to be fed with commercial feeds that contain fishmeal and fish oil as main ingredients. Their feed is an unsustainable source of nutrition that can contribute to overfishing of wild populations. In response, Nueva Pescanova said it is researching the substitution of raw animal products for plant-based options like spirulina. 

The company stated that “aquaculture is the solution to ensuring a sustainable yield” and that it would “repopulate the octopus species in the future.” However, conservationists believe farming them would lower the price, potentially creating new markets.

If Nueva Pescanova’s plan is approved, it would be the world’s first industrial octopus farm. And there are currently attempts to establish similar octopus farms elsewhere in the world, including Japan and Mexico. Several groups have established petitions calling on governments to ban the breeding, keeping and import of farmed octopuses, and Canada’s petition has already amassed more than 10,000 signatures.

While it remains to be seen whether Nueva Pescanova will be legally allowed to open its octopus farm, the ethical debate will likely continue.