A recently proposed octopus aquaculture farm in the Canary Islands would raise 3,000 metric tons of octopus per year, which means that nearly 275,000 individual octopuses will be killed each year.
My research examines the minds and ethics of animals, and to me the phrase “octopus culture” reminds me of Octopolis and Octlantis, two wild octopus communities in Jervis Bay, Australia.
In Octopolis, many octopuses share – and compete for – a few square meters of seabed. In these aquatic cities, octopuses form dominance hierarchies, and they have begun to develop new behaviors: male octopuses fighting for territory and, possibly, females by throwing debris and boxing.
Building the Octopus community
The discovery of octopus communities has surprised biologists who have long described octopuses as solitary animals that interact with others in three specific contexts: to hunt, to avoid being hunted and to mate.
What Octopolis suggests may occur in nature is what has also been observed in captive octopuses: when living in too dense a captive environment, octopuses form dominance hierarchies.
In their battles for power, male octopuses perform a series of antagonistic behaviors including throwing scallops to defend their den, and the “coat up” display that makes an octopus look like a menacing vampire.
Submissive octopuses signal conformity to light colors and flattened body postures. For their efforts, dominants seem to have better access to high-quality dens and females.
What happens in Octopolis and Octlantis is properly called octopus culture. The idea of animal culture came about after scientists noticed that in some groups, animals perform actions that are not seen in other groups of the same species.
One of the earliest proponents of animal cultures was Japanese primatologist Kinji Imanishi, who in the 1950s observed that a group of Japanese macaques on the island of Koshima washed sweet potatoes in water before eating them.
It was a new behavior, never seen in other groups of macaques, and observers were lucky enough to observe its origins. A monkey named Imo was the first to wash a potato in salt water and others quickly copied it, leading to community-wide behavior.
The idea of animal culture inspired much of Japanese primatology thereafter, but in Europe and North America the culture did not attract much attention until 1999, when an article on chimpanzee culture has been published.
Since then, evidence of culture—typical group behaviors that are socially learned—has been found throughout the animal kingdom, including among fish, birds, and insects.
A new kind of octopus
The proposal to start an octopus farm is a proposal to create a new culture of octopus, because when cultural animals are brought together, they can only create society.
It is also a proposal to create a new type of octopus: cultural behaviors coupled with the captive environment will be a new environmental niche that will shape further evolution.
Our familiar farm animals – like Angus cows and Chocktaw pigs – have been domesticated and are entirely different from the animals from which they evolved.
Many of our pets cannot survive without human care. Examples include domesticated rabbits, which evolved without the instincts and coloring of wild rabbits to protect them from predators, sheep whose wool becomes too thick without regular pruning, and chickens raised for meat which cannot walk adulthood because their breasts are too heavy. .
Starting an octopus farm is a commitment to creating a new type of animal that depends on humans for its existence. It’s not an idea to be taken lightly, nor a project that can be responsibly attempted and then abandoned when it proves too difficult or unprofitable.
Octopus population management
There are many reasons to fear that an octopus farm may not be easy to manage. Unlike other farm animals, octopuses need space. Octopolis is already a battleground of boxing octopuses; one can only wonder what it will look like on the scale of thousands.
Octopuses are sensitive – they are emotional animals that feel pain. A recent report commissioned by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs examined the scientific evidence for the experience of pain in cephalopod molluscs (octopus, squid and cuttlefish).
Sensitive animals used for food are protected by welfare laws and killed in a way that minimizes their pain. Current methods of slaughtering octopuses include bludgeoning, brain slicing, or choking.
The authors of the report conclude that none of these methods of slaughter are humane and advise against the farming of octopuses.
Octopuses are escape artists. The type of habitat necessary to shelter them will be difficult to achieve, especially by providing enrichment, because an enriched environment will be rich in possible escapes.
If an octopus farm is started and then abandoned, the thousands of domesticated cultural octopuses cannot be released into the sea and should thrive.
We have learned of the many costly attempts to free Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the Save Willy frankness, that the successful reintroduction of captive-bred animals into the wild is not easy. Even after spending US$20 million, Keiko died in captivity.
The proposal to bring together thousands of animals in an octopus megacity would expand octopus culture far beyond anything found in the wild or in captivity.
This would create hundreds of thousands of Keikos, cultural aquatic animals captured from the wild and brought into captivity. And it would force them to live together and create a new culture in what is sure to be a violent octopus slum.
Right now, we’re learning that octopuses feel emotions and have culture, and we’re starting to rethink current intensive farming practices.
This is exactly the wrong time to come up with such a scheme. We now know better.
Kristin Andrews, Professor of Philosophy, York University, Canada.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.