In a damp, darkened shoreside laboratory near the Yucatán hamlet of Sisal, Carlos Rosas Vázquez lifts one of the scores of small conch shells littering a black plastic tank. He coaxes its wary occupant out onto his hand. A mouse-size octopus with tentacles like knotted threads, ghostly pale save for big, black eyes, wriggles across his palm and twines around his fingers. Even Rosas, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who’s worked for years to turn creatures like this into a profitable commodity, delights in its prehensile grace. “Maravilloso!” he murmurs.
Around the world, octopuses have long been objects of desire and wonder. Now they’re becoming an ethical flashpoint, as researchers like Rosas puzzle out ways to make commercial octopus farming feasible and, they claim, relieve growing pressure on wild populations. Not good, a new contingent of critics contends: Octopus aquaculture will further deplete marine ecosystems and needlessly torment these most sensitive and intelligent of invertebrates.
Long staples of Mediterranean and East Asian cuisines, octopus (pulpo in Spanish, tako in Japanese) is now a global delicacy, buoyed by the popularity of sushi, tapas, poke, and desire for high-quality protein. Demand and prices have surged in recent years, even as catches have fallen in traditional octopus meccas such as Spain and Japan and as warming, acidifying seas threaten further declines.
At a glance, therefore, these tasty tentacle bearers seem ripe for aquaculture. For many people, however, they mean much more than tasty tidbits. “People have this weird love affair with octopuses,” says biologist Rich Ross at the California Academy of Science, in San Francisco. “I know those who would never eat them but have no qualms about eating pigs, and there’s abundant evidence that pigs are highly intelligent.”
Pigs, however, aren’t as graceful, mysterious, and charismatic as octopuses. Big brains, complex behavior, and precocious curiosity have made these improbable mollusks mediagenic poster creatures for animal rights and welfare—and the subject of an emerging battle over the ethics and potential environmental impacts of raising them for food. (Also read about the growing trend for pet octopuses.)
That debate caught fire last year when Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, and several co-authors posted an essay, “The Case Against Aquaculture,” that quickly went viral. It argues that the grim “ethical and environmental consequences” of industrial meat production “should lead us to ask whether we want to repeat mistakes already made with terrestrial animals with aquatic animals, especially octopus.”
Most wild octopus fisheries are still more artisanal than industrial, using small boats and traditional techniques. Thousands of fishermen in Mexico’s Yucatán and Campeche states lure their prey by dangling crabs from long bamboo poles. But the global catch—420,000 metric tons a year, the FAO reports—goes largely to affluent consumers in South Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and, lately, the United States. Pulpo a la gallega may be the national dish of Spain’s Galicia region, but Galicia imports 20 times as much octopus as it catches.
“Today, I go to the sea and I get 10 or 20 kilograms of octopus,” one fisherman in nearby Portugal told a newspaper, “when in other years it was more than a hundred kilos [220 pounds].” He and his comrades urged a temporary fishery closure to help stocks recover.
“I hardly go out to fish anymore,” Yucatán fisherman Antonio Cob Reyes told me. “The sea is getting crowded—more fishermen, less octopus.” Morocco and Mauritania, two main producers, have limited catches to protect stocks.
Aquaculture advocates say that farming octopuses is the only way to ensure sustainability while satisfying demand. Some aspects of the octopus life cycle make them attractive aquaculture candidates. Like salmon, they’re short-lived and fast-growing; most common species live one to two years, a few jumbo varieties three to five. They can add 5 percent of body weight in a day. But that life cycle presents one big hurdle: sustaining delicate planktonic octopus hatchlings, called paralarvae, until they can begin this rocketing growth.
The baby octopus conundrum
In 2015, an Australian firm reported remarkable success at battery-farming the common Sydney octopus. But it failed at raising paralarvae and reverted to ranching—growing wild-caught octopuses to market size in aquatic pens, a system also used in Spain.
The only octoculture effort in the U.S., Kanaloa Octopus Farms, on Hawaii’s Big Island, has hit the same “bottleneck,” as founder Jake Conroy calls it. Kanaloa is now working on growing zooplankton to make a feed that will sustain the paralarvae. It pays the bills by charging visitors to see, touch, and feed the grown animals. Conroy, a biologist who turned to aquaculture to escape the research-funding rat race, admits that such close encounters don’t encourage more consumption. “Nine times out of ten we wind up convincing people not to eat octopus,” he says. “We’re fine with that.”
In 2017 the Japanese fishing giant Nisui announced that it had “closed the life cycle”—raising successive cultured generations, which frees aquaculture from dependence on wild captures—and anticipated commercial production in 2020. Contacted in January, Nisui would say only, “Unfortunately we are still in research and development stage.”
Today, the multinational, Galicia-based fishing and seafood firm Grupo Nueva Pescanova, building on work by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, is doing what may be the most advanced octoculture research, though it doesn’t anticipate commercial production until 2023. Ricardo Tur Estrada, Pescanova’s research chief and a