It seems ironic that shortly after an amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill stating octopuses to be ‘sentient beings’ capable of a range of human-like emotions such as joy, pleasure, excitement, as well as pain, distress, and harm, plans of the word’s first commercial octopus farm arose. Yet that is exactly what happened with The Spanish Multinational Nueva Pescanova (NP) introducing plans of selling farmed octopus meat by 2023. The controversial announcement has sparked outrage amongst scientists, conservationists, and animal rights activists alike.
The most widely accepted hypotheses surrounding intelligence suggest it coevolves with slow life histories and socioecological challenges. However, these claims are based on large-brained vertebrates. Cephalopod molluscs, including octopuses, greatly challenge these theories as they evolved high cognitive capabilities alongside fast life histories and simple social environments. Since the emergence of this knowledge, octopus intelligence has been widely studied with theories suggesting its cognitive mechanism underwent a complex evolutionary path. We now know these creatures are capable of complex problem solving and tool use, flexible anti-predatory behaviours, and sophisticated camouflage techniques. What’s even more fascinating, we share a common ancestor from 560 years ago!
In addition to their advanced cognition, octopuses have also been shown to be highly emotional creatures capable of experiencing complex feelings reminiscent of those felt by humans and other mammals. Among the first invertebrates discovered to feel not only physical but also emotional pain, octopuses once again shifted perceptions about intellectual and emotional capabilities within the animal kingdom. Despite the hardship of interpreting the emotional state of an animal so different to us, Robyn Crook, a neurobiologist from San Francisco State University has been investigating the issue for years. By measuring spontaneous pain-associated behaviours and the consequent neural changes, she has identified three lines of evidence all pointing at octopuses’ ability to feel negative emotions when confronted with pain. It turns out octopuses can not only turn blue but also feel blue…
“Even in the absence of proof on conscious awareness or sentience in cephalopods, it remains clear that the responses demonstrated by octopuses in this study are so similar to those that would be expressed by mammals experiencing pain, that a reasonable, cautionary argument can be made that internal state of these disparate species is likely also similar,” Crook concludes.
This landmark study and a multitude of others have since acted as evidence of octopuses emotional intelligence and sentience, having implications for how we consider their welfare and consumption.
A recently published and government-commissioned independent review by the London School of Economics and Politics led to the amendment of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill to include decapods and cephalopods. The review defined being sentient as having “the capacity to experience pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort and excitement.” Good news for this group of marine molluscs and crustaceans, right? Not quite! Not long after the announcement, NP announced its plans to breed, market and sell farmed octopus by 2023. According to a BBC article, the company has built on research conducted by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (Instituto Español de Oceanografía) which explored the breeding habits of the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). It has been reported the farm will produce 3,0000 tonnes of octopus per year with the company stating this will halt the decline of octopuses in the wild. NP has, however, declined to comment on the conditions the farmed animals will be kept in, what they will be fed and how they will be killed. The project has been internationally criticised by researchers as an ecologically and ethically unjustified endeavour. The arguments against keeping octopuses in enclosed spaces and breeding them en masse for commercial sale purposes all relate to the animal’s cognitive and emotional intelligence which will not find sufficient stimulation in such conditions, as stated by experts. There are also concerns about the safety of these animals in an aquaculture facility owing to their lack of exoskeleton and territorial tendencies which could lead to the animals killing each other.
Despite octopuses being considered sentient under UK law, the worry is that if the farm does open, the animals it produces will receive little to no attention under European Law. Nueva Pescanova says on its website that it is “firmly committed to aquaculture as a method to reduce pressure on fishing grounds and ensure sustainable, safe, healthy, and controlled resources, complementing fishing”. However, Dr Elena Lara from Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) argues their intentions are purely commercial and that the farm will not stop wild octopuses from being fished. Moreover, she states that farming octopuses could only add to the pressures on wild fish stocks. Currently, half of the fish caught for feed is being used in aquaculture, hence farmed octopus are likely to be fed on fish from over-exploited stocks. Looking at analogous examples such as that of international salmon aquaculture, it isn’t difficult to imagine a similar fate for farmed octopuses…
Knowing what we know about octopus intelligence and their capacity to experience a wide range of emotions, is this the future we want for these alien-like, yet strangely anthropomorphic creatures? Maybe it’s high time to recognise intelligence and the ability to experience both positive and negative emotions in all manners of life and start affording all creatures the respect and fair treatment they deserve instead of satisfying our consumption needs with foods non-essential to food security.