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Consider the noble octopus

The Canary Islands will soon host the world’s first industrial octopus farm. But there is no humane way to slaughter these intelligent, sentient creatures.

By India Bourke

With eight arms, three hearts and a nervous system that allows it to taste through its skin, the octopus inhabits a sensory world that we may never fully understand. And yet they are clear with us about what they dislike. They bombard fellow cephalopods who encroach too close with shells; they escape artificial enclosures via ingenious means – in one case flooding an entire lab by disassembling its tank’s outflow valve. Such breakouts are staged largely at night, suggesting a Steve McQueen-like level of premeditation.

They have also given us glimpses into how their inner lives extend beyond simply avoiding competitors or confinement. In the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, the bond formed between the film-maker and a wild female octopus has entranced viewers.

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At one point she nestles on his chest in a gesture that resembles a human embrace. In another part of the film, she repeatedly scatters a shoal of fish, simply to bask in the resulting kaleidoscope of wonder. All of which makes the prospect of intensively farming these sentient, sensitive creatures deeply unsettling. Yet that is what the Spanish seafood firm Nueva Pescanova has proposed.

The company is preparing to open the world’s first industrial-scale facility in the Canary Islands. According to documents leaked to the BBC, it aims to produce as many as one million octopuses a year inside a two-storey building. The animals will be housed in communal tanks (in the wild they are solitary) and subjected to light for sustained periods (they like to lurk in the dark), and the company estimates 10-15 per cent will die prematurely. For those that do make it to slaughter, a slow death by icy water will await.

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These creatures would not be the first, of course, to enter such an intensive system; hundreds of billions of chickens, pigs, cattle and other species have gone before them. But, as Dr Andrew Crump of the Royal Veterinary College explains, octopuses’ behaviour is highly unsuited to captivity. From the way they jet-propel themselves away from danger to the cannibalism (and even self-cannibalism) displayed when kept in crowded conditions, these “great apes of the invertebrate world” are far from conventional livestock. “There’s really no commercially viable way to humanely kill an octopus that we know about,” Crump said – a view shared by many other biologists.

Nueva Pescanova has argued that farming the creatures is necessary to prevent wild populations being ravaged: the global octopus catch almost doubled between 1980 and 2014. But consider this: the amount of fish needed as feed for each farmed octopus is much greater in weight than the end product at slaughter, as Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, points out. Even using intensive methods, octopus production is unsustainable. “Factory farming, whether of octopus or other species, is about mortgaging our children’s future with no ability to pay,” Lymbery said, alluding to the industrial-scale overfishing and deforestation that is destroying global habitats. Today, the total mass of wild land mammals stands at just 10 per cent of the human population.

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All of which raises the question: should greater limits be placed on satisfying our appetites? How far will we allow such human hubris to go? Ever since Aristotle’s concept of the scala naturae (“ladder of nature”) ranked animal forms of life, humanity has been encouraged to view the world through a hierarchical lens with itself at the top. “Often, fearing our own kinship to animals, we project animality on to other groups of humans – racial minorities, women – and subordinate them on that account,” the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum told me in response to the octopus-farm revelations, “but of course, the worst consequence is the abuse to animals themselves.”

The octopus has often sunk to the bottom of this chain of privilege. Sometimes it has been pushed there by a fear of the unknown (in 19th-century maps, an octopus motif represented the spread of malign foreign powers). And sometimes it has simply been allowed to slip, characteristically silently, out of sight. Only last year did the UK’s groundbreaking Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act extend protections to decapods and cephalopods. If a government here tried to encourage octopus farming, the Animal Sentience Committee could advise against it. With no direct powers itself, the committee could not, however, enforce a ban. Nor is there legislation anywhere in the world, to Crump’s knowledge, that would provide welfare protection for farmed octopuses.

It is a tragedy that this protection deficit is in such contrast to the science showing the extent of octopus intelligence. But it is also not surprising.

As the latest UN assessment of the climate shows, and as the Extinction Rebellion protests remind us, the gravest of all scientific warnings have still not been acted upon with the urgency required.

Banning industrial octopus farming by itself won’t stop wider ecological disaster, but it might act as an example of changed intent – a marker of a renewed awareness of our connectedness to the rest of the living world. As Martha Nussbaum put it to me: “We should stop all abuses, but if there is a chance to begin somewhere we should take it, rather than waiting for perfection.”

[See also: Fantastic beasts and how to save them]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown