By Hope Jackson, Paige Bernstein, Lydia Sellers, and Natalie Turner
Octopus are cephalopods and members of the order Octopoda. Cephalopods have the largest brain per unit body weight of any invertebrate, and octopus are among the most highly intelligent and neurologically advanced of all invertebrates. Octopus have been known to escape complex enclosures, use extreme camouflage techniques to escape their predators, use tools, pick locks, raid lobster traps, solve problems, and more. They can recognize human faces, have been shown to have long-term and short-term memory, and some evidence even suggests that they can experience pain and suffering. They are carnivores who eat clams, shrimp, lobsters, fish, sharks, and even sometimes birds. They can be found in oceans all over the world, but mostly being found in pelagic habitats near the water’s surface.
Octopus demand has exponentially increased over the past decade. Over 100 species of octopus are currently caught in the wild. It is estimated that over 350,000 metric tons of octopus are caught from the ocean every year, with the highest demand coming from Korea, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy. 2/3 of the annual catch comes from Asia, and at least half of that is from China. Since the 1980s, consumer demand has grown so much that octopus populations have decreased significantly as a result of overfishing. Their mild, chewy, and delicate meat is popular in a variety of dishes like poke, sushi, and tapas. It is also high in vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. In Korea, octopus is sometimes even eaten live. The demand for octopus meat is continuing to grow quickly across the world and to meet this growing demand, many countries are experimenting with raising octopus in captivity.
Aquaculture is defined as the breeding and harvesting of animals or plants in water environments. On a global scale, marine aquaculture provides over 50 percent of all human consumed seafood and is used to restore habitats, replenish wild stocks, and rebuild populations. Marine fish farming usually begins with hatcheries and then moves to net pens in water or in tanks on land. For octopus, males and females are caught using nets, lines and traps. Then, they mate and the female’s eggs are placed in an “incubator” which is dark and cool. Once hatched, the juveniles are moved into larger tanks or pools and usually hand fed using a paste of squid and crab. Once they reach a mature weight, they can be sold. However, some octopus hatch into a paralarval stage in which they have stubby arms and float through the water column like plankton, eating whatever microscopic food that comes their way. They eventually settle at the bottom of the sea and for scientists, recreating these environments is a major difficulty. Some of the key variables that must be monitored and maintained diligently in a tank or pen, which is a difficult task, include temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, space, and salinity.
Ethical and Ecological Concerns:
Although at first thought aquaculture may seem like a viable solution to the growing consumer demand for octopus, farming octopus through aquaculture actually has an overwhelming amount of ethical and ecological concerns. The main ethical concern is the welfare of an octopus in factory-farming or domesticated environments. Octopus are highly intelligent and complex animals that require stimulating and dynamic environments for maximum success, something that would be very difficult to replicate in aquaculture, which relies on controlled and monotonous environments. Not only would overcrowding be an issue, but octopus can also experience frustration and boredom without proper mental stimulation. Additionally, intense farming systems have been shown to be linked to increased mortality rates, increased aggression and more frequent infection.
The main ecological concern surrounding the farming of octopus is the additional pressure that would be placed on other fish and invertebrates in the wild. Because octopus are carnivores, they rely on fish protein and oil for nutrition, and this live food must come from somewhere. Increasing the population size of octopus through methods of factory farming puts extra pressure on wild fish populations that must be used for fishmeal. Currently, about one-third of the global fish catch is used to feed other animals, with about one half of that going to aquaculture. Because octopus eat about three-times their body weight over their lifetime, keeping octopus fed in captivity would put even more strain on already over-taxed fisheries, and would likely contribute to declining food security for humans as well. Aquaculture has many additional negative environmental impacts as well including pollution and contamination caused by feces, food waste and fertilizers, and the loss of natural habitats used for farms.
Looking to the Future:
When looking to the future, cephalopod farming should not be a part of it. Conscious diets that avoid high ecological footprints and primary education that encourages community investment for the protection of these animals are part of the solution to this pending problem. Alternative protein markets could also respond to this demand. Companies like Beyond Meats and Toona already impact traditional seafood markets and clearly demonstrate a market response to alternative meat solutions. Consumers have the direct power to end the demand for octopus cuisine now!
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