By William J. Furney
LAS PALMAS — Spanish seafood group Nueva Pescanova is tapping into increased demand for octopus by opening what’s billed as the world’s first octopus farm, enraging animal rights activists and conservationists, who point to the “intelligent” nature of the fabled mollusc with eight sucker-studded tentacles and say it should not be factory-farmed.
The Galacia-based multinational, which operates in 80 countries across five continents and has around €1 billion in annual revenue, according to public accounts, is developing the facility near the busy La Luz Port in Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria, one of eight Spanish islands off the northwest coast of Africa. The farm will become operational in the coming months, with production capacity of around 3,000 tons and freshly farmed octopuses ready for sale by the middle of 2023, the company and media reports suggest.
Much is not known about the nascent operation, as Nueva Pescanova is keeping many of its details secret, refusing to reveal to reporters exactly how it will breed and kill the octopuses and what sort of environment they will be kept in. Britain’s BBC, for instance, has made several attempts to get information about the farm, to no avail.
Octopuses are exceptionally difficult to breed in captivity, various research shows, particularly because they require a specialised environment and when the young hatch from eggs, they will only eat live food.
To find a solution to octopus farming — and beat rival seafood companies around the world trying to solve the problem — Nueva Pescanova experimented at its Biomarine Center research facility in Pontevedra, Galicia, on the northwesterly tip of Spain, a region where Pulpo Gallego, or Galician Octopus, is a popular tapa and eaten all around the country.
Now, the company says, it has unlocked the octopus-breeding mystery — of the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) — and is forging ahead with factory-farming the creature, investing a reported €50 million in the pioneering venture.
Nueva Pescanova technical director Ricardo Tur Estrada, who oversaw the company’s octopus-breeding research, said in a corporate statement that “the octopus requires very specific marine conditions for its development, such as the availability of food and optimal oceanographic factors related to temperature, salinity, ocean currents and the wellbeing of the animal”. The fishing conglomerate puts the survival rate of wild octopuses in captivity at just 0.0001% but says its early breeding efforts have seen the figure “rise to 50%”.
Local and international media reports about the groundbreaking endeavour have begun to trickle out, scientists and conversations have argued against the project and animal rights group PETA has launched a campaign urging the Canary Islands government to shut it down.
“Tens of thousands” of people have signed a petition calling on the Canary Islands government’s Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries minister, Alicia Vanoostende Simili, who is of Belgian origin, to “take action and stop the plans for farming these extraordinary thinking, feeling beings,” PETA’s UK office told Furney Times.
Attempts by Furney Times to reach Minister Simili for comment on whether the octopus farm would go ahead were not successful.
Many people got a rare insight into the extraordinary world of the octopus through the 2020 Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher. The film chronicles the relationship between a free diver, South African Craig Foster, and a female octopus; it won Best Documentary at last year’s Oscars.
“The Netflix film My Octopus Teacher gave the world a moving glimpse into the lives of these unique, naturally solitary and fragile wild animals. People who watched it will be appalled to discover that there are plans to confine these fascinating, inquisitive and sentient creatures in factory farms. Their lives would simply not be worth living,” said Dr Elena Lara of animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming.
The campaigning group has produced a damning report on octopus breeding — Octopus Factory Farming: A Recipe for Disaster — and has written to the Spanish central government, in Madrid, “urging them to prevent any further development of this cruel and environmentally damaging practice.”
Propelled by a desire for a low-fat, nutritious food, demand for octopus-based dishes is increasing around the world, as the animal is also used in sushi, and a number of other dishes. In South Korea and Japan, octopus is often eaten alive.
PETA UK Director Elisa Allen is equally outraged about the octopus farm plan, and likened it to incarceration of the quick-witted creatures that have even been known to escape from aquariums.
“Octopuses are recognised as ‘Einsteins of the sea’ and are capable of complex thought processes: they can navigate mazes, use tools and learn how to do such things as unscrew lids, simply by watching,” she told Furney Times.
“They are masters of disguise; they decorate their homes as we do; and they have excellent memories. They are also extremely sensitive to pain. Cramming these clever cephalopods into tanks or netted pools in which they would be denied everything that gives their life meaning would be unconscionable — which is why scientists, conservationists and tens of thousands of PETA supporters are calling for plans for this octopus prison to be scrapped.
“These fascinating, highly intelligent animals should be respected and allowed to live their lives in their natural environments, not imprisoned and killed for tapas.”
Nueva Pescanova responded to a request from Furney Times for comment about the controversy surrounding its octopus farm via a Madrid-based PR firm, LLYC. It provided scant information about the operation, and pointed to the Pescanova Biomarine Center as “the first private aquaculture research centre in Spain and one of the three most important in Europe”. Nueva Pescanova’s representatives did not answer specific questions about the octopus farm under development in Las Palmas.
The seafood company says in corporate material, however, 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.” The enterprise adds that it “has spent decades working on the efficient development of sustainable extractive fishing and the farming of different species, minimising the impact on the marine environment, being one of the main producers of turbot and king prawn around the world.”
And it claims that its in-development octopus farm will help boost marine biodiversity by reducing the amount of wild octopuses plucked from the sea.
- Title photograph shows the common octopus in the ocean. (Credit: stock)