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Octopus farming: scientists concerned (and some opposed)

Animal rights activists up in arms over Spain's Nueva Pescanova project for world's first aquaculture

In today's warlike scenario, where everyone has something to say about everything, the octopus war, which arose in the wake of the plan to build the world's first octopus farm in the Canary Islands, could not be missed. The idea, or something more as we shall see, has caused deep concern (when not outrage) among scientists and environmentalists worried about the welfare of these creatures famous for their intelligence and solitary lives.

Igniting the fuse was Nueva Pescanova, a Spanish multinational company specializing in the capture, cultivation, production and marketing of seafood: the company sent planning proposal documents for the octopus farming project to the Canary Islands' Directorate General of Fisheries.

Efa, or Eurogroup for animals, a Brussels-based animal protection lobby that seeks to improve animal welfare standards in the EU, obtained the documents stating that, once fully operational, the proposed farm would produce about 3,000 tons of octopus per year: in practice, we are talking about one million octopuses raised, three times the number currently caught in the wild by Spanish fisheries.

According to Nueva Pescanova's plans, unveiled by Belgium's Efa, the sea creatures would be kept in tanks with other octopuses, sometimes under constant light, the typical technique used to increase reproduction. If the plans go ahead, there will be about 1,000 communal tanks in a two-story building in the port of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. According to Efa, keeping the creatures in communal tanks would be detrimental to their well-being and would pose the risk of aggression, territorialism and cannibalism, due to the solitary nature of octopuses.

"The octopuses will be kept in artificial and crowded tanks, with high densities of 10-15 octopuses per cubic meter -emphasizes Efa ceo Reineke Hameleers-. This is a prerequisite for making this type of land-based aquaculture system profitable. During the reproductive process, octopuses are exposed to 24-hour periods of light to speed up production-the living conditions described are very worrying for the maintenance of these solitary, inquisitive, light-averse animals".

The spanish multinational responds by claiming that it has achieved a high level of "domestication" of the species and says it is convinced that these animals "do not show important signs of cannibalism or competition for food." The spanish company, moreover, points out that it has conducted research on the coexistence of the species in captivity in collaboration with several institutions, including the Marine Research Institute, the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine and Environmental Research, and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (Ieo): studies that, the multinational company says, have "demonstrated how octopuses normally adapt to group living environments without aggression due to territoriality".

There is also the method of killing octopuses that does not convince. The facility proposed by Nueva Pescanova, in fact, would kill the animals through a process known as "ice slurry": basically, immersion in a mixture of ice and water, where the octopuses are left to die due to lack of oxygen. 

Efa claims this is "a highly inhumane, scientifically proven method that causes considerable pain, fear and suffering, as well as prolonged death". The British charity Humane slaughter association also speaks out, pointing to death by ice slurry as an unacceptable method of slaughter. In addition, Efsa, the European Food Safety Authority, advises against its use for several fish species, and the European Commission is drafting new legislation to end the practice in some aquaculture sectors.

Supporters of the project, however, argue that octopus farming offers a sustainable method of production for consumption and would reduce pressure on wild populations. A spokesperson for the Iberian multinational, quoted by the Guardian, said the farming of these creatures is necessary "to protect a species of great environmental and human value". In addition, on Nueva Pescanova's website, the seafood supplier says it is "firmly committed to aquaculture as a method to reduce pressure on fishing grounds and ensure sustainable, safe, healthy and controlled resources to complement fishing".

Among the fears of those opposed to the initiative is that octopuses will be fed commercial feeds containing fish oil and fishmeal as main ingredients. "These feeds are highly unsustainable and have led to overexploitation of ocean resources -explained Efa director general Hameleers-. The aquaculture industry has failed to solve this huge environmental problem, with which it has been grappling for decades". 

Nueva Pescanova, seems intent on shooting straight convinced as she is that "aquaculture is the solution to ensure a sustainable yield" and that farming will "repopulate the octopus species in the future". Arguments that don't convince environmentalists: many of them, and many scientists, believe that octopus farming is inhumane and could lower the price of food, bringing with it a new wave of markets but more importantly, dangers.

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EFA News - European Food Agency