What would it be like to freeze to death? To be plunged, suddenly and against your will, into a tank full of icy water? At first, the sensory shock would be overwhelming; the cold would rip through your body like a knife. You’d thrash around, looking for an escape. Soon, though, hypothermia would set in. Numbness would start in the extremities, then spread inward. Before long, you’d lose the ability to move—but still be able to think, and feel pure terror, for a little longer. When the light of consciousness finally winked out, it would come as a mercy.
Clearly, this is a horror story. But it’s exactly the fate that Spanish seafood company Nueva Pescanova is trying to inflict on millions of octopi. In a move that should disgust anyone who thinks about it for ten seconds, the firm wants to build the world’s first factory farm for the common octopus (or Octopus vulgaris) in the port of Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands. There, the cephalopods would be slaughtered en masse for the world’s dinner tables, mainly by being thrown into “baths of ice flakes and water that would gradually drop to -3C.” With an unnerving nonchalance, the company’s representatives have described this method of killing as “superior to clubbing the animals over the head, and [considering] the many unknowns regarding how to stun octopuses with electricity.” (They apparently think this makes them sound like kind, thoughtful entrepreneurs rather than sociopaths.) Nueva Pescanova has been planning their facility since at least 2019, when their scientists successfully raised octopi born in captivity to reproduce and have offspring of their own, creating a closed life cycle. Now, having filed permit requests with the government of the Canary Islands, they’re almost ready to build.
Like most companies that traffic in animal flesh, Nueva Pescanova doesn’t exactly publicize the gory details. In fact, they didn’t release much concrete information of any kind to the public. Instead, it was the activist organization Eurogroup for Animals that leaked the company’s internal planning documents to the BBC this March. Among other things, the files reveal that the captive octopi would be fed not their natural diet of freshly-caught clams, snails, and crustaceans but “industrially produced dry feed” made from “discards and by-products” of commercial fishing. They would also be severely overcrowded, with “some 10-15 octopuses living in each cubic metre of tank.” These cramped conditions would be bad enough for any animal, but octopi are solitary hunters, making them uniquely ill-suited to be thrown together in an enclosed space. Reports from the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine show that they’re particularly vulnerable to skin lesions and other forms of tissue damage, either from contact with each others’ powerful suckers or collisions with tank walls. They can suffer various bacterial complications from these injuries and, without proper medical treatment, die. As a matter of course, Nueva Pescanova’s marine biologists predicted “a mortality rate of 10-15%” in their habitats. What’s more, the proposed facility would have “around 1,000 communal tanks,” accounting for a harvest of 3,000 metric tons of octopus meat per year. This would mean, on average, the death of at least a million octopi annually. The sheer scope of the proposed slaughter is terrifying. If the plan goes through, it would cause unimaginable suffering and subject yet another animal to the worst cruelty that humans are capable of.
I vividly remember my first encounter with an octopus. I was about 8 years old, visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore with my aunt. The individual in question—and the creature was, distinctly, an individual—wasn’t O. vulgaris, but their cousin Enteroctopus dofleini, the giant Pacific octopus. The aquarium was crowded, and a group of middle schoolers on a field trip had bunched up around the octopus’s tank, laughing, bickering, and tapping on the glass. For its part, the octopus had huddled up in the far corner, its skin a dark slate-blue that matched the tank wall. Eventually, the kids moved on to be annoying in the next room, and the octopus descended. It bloomed, turning a beautiful reddish-orange. In that moment, it seemed to me that it had been scared, or perhaps angry; now, though, it felt safe enough to come out. Although I suppose I’d known in an abstract sense that nonhuman beings have emotions of their own, it was the first time I was really struck by this fact. Since then, I’ve always been a little disturbed by the sight of dishes like takoyaki or the grilled polpo you sometimes see at Italian restaurants. They feel fundamentally obscene, like the exquisitely-prepared human flesh from the Hannibal Lecter movies.
I’m not the only one with an affinity for our eight-tentacled friends, either. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by them, festooning their pottery with images of octopi, and at least one tilemaker in pre-volcanic Pompeii followed suit. In the ’60s, octopi inspired one of Ringo Starr’s best songs. More recently, football fans in Germany formed a cult following around an octopus named Paul, who seemingly predicted the results of eight World Cup matches by choosing treats from containers marked with flags. (It was probably a coincidence, but then, what if it wasn’t?) In New Zealand, an O. vulgaris named Inky made international headlines when he climbed out of his tank, crawled across an aquarium floor, and flushed himself down a drainpipe to freedom in the ocean. (Inky is now the subject of at least three charming children’s books.) In Florida, an octopus called Farallon has become a celebrated abstract painter, just as various chimps and elephants have in the past.
What we’re dealing with, then, is a truly remarkable creature—highly intelligent, emotionally complex, and possessed of unique, irreplaceable personalities. In other words, a sentient being. The full extent of an octopus’s inner life is only beginning to be known to us bald apes, but what we do know is enough to make purposely killing one—let alone a million—unconscionable. In a 2010 study, scientists showed that octopi can remember human faces and decide whether they like or dislike a person based on how they’ve been treated. They’re clever and creative tool-users, with the veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) often carrying coconut shells around to use as defensive shields. There’s growing evidence that they dream. Of course, there’s an ethical danger in relying too heavily on intelligence as an argument against killing, because an animal’s right to live should never be dependent on how smart it is. (Or rather, how smart humans think it is, a judgment we’re ill-equipped to make.) Still, in his 2018 book Other Minds, the Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith argues that the octopus is “the closest we’re likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien,” and this strikes me as a useful metaphor to drive home the enormity of what Nueva Pescanova wants to do. An octopus is not just something, they are someone. Farallon is a different being from Paul or Inky, and when one of them dies, there will never be another. In reading about the proposed factory farm, I’m constantly reminded of the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” where Captain Picard goes to court to defend the android Commander Data’s rights as a sentient life-form. Picard’s words seem hauntingly appropriate to the case of the octopi: Isn’t that becoming a race? And won’t we be judged by how we treat that race?
Needless to say, Nueva Pescanova disagrees. They have all sorts of arguments for why factory-farming octopi is actually a good thing, and some of them might sound superficially convincing. In brief, the justifications go like this: raising captive octopi to be eaten will reduce the demand for wild-caught ones, and is therefore “necessary to protect a species of great environmental and human value” from overfishing. Freezing the octopi to death is “the most respectful, most humane form of sacrifice that we know of today,” with “a protocol that needs to be developed before the animal reaches the phase of immersion in ice so that it suffers as little as possible.” (Notice that they speak in euphemisms, avoiding the word “killing.”) Finally, the octopi that Nueva Pescanova has raised are more docile than wild ones, having gone through five generations of an “indirect selection process” in which “you end up with the ones that are best suited to the conditions.” As a result, the company claims their octopi won’t experience the stress and suffering that the species typically does when crammed in together. Through the power of biotech innovation, they’ve figured out how to kill a million cephalopods humanely, you see. They’re being environmentally friendly about it, helping to conserve octopi at large by slaughtering the ones they actually work with.
These arguments are doubtful at best, and outright lies at worst. We can address the point about “indirect selection” first. Here, there’s a discrepancy between the results Nueva Pescanova claims to have seen and the consensus of the scientific community. In a comprehensive survey of the academic literature on cephalopods, the London School of Economics and Political Science—hardly a bunch of soft-hearted animal lovers—found the following:
[T]he “tightly controlled and monotonous environments” typical of farming would not allow for the cognitive stimulation, exploration and environmental control necessary for psychological welfare. Cephalopods regularly show signs of stress in poor captive environments, such as irregular swimming patterns, depression, agitation and anorexia (McDonald, 2011) and stress can even result in autophagy (consumption of own limbs) (Hayter, 2005).
In short, keeping curious, emotional octopi in a confined farm environment is untenable. Under those conditions, they become so stressed and unwell that they eat their own arms. (The observation is centuries old: even the Greek poet Hesiod noted that octopi could become “self-devouring” in the wrong circumstances.) There’s a clear parallel to other forms of factory farming, in which pigs routinely become so scared and anxious that they start gnawing on each other’s tails or the bars of their cages. The idea that a little selective breeding could reprogram every observed behavior of O. vulgaris beggars belief. Five generations might be enough to enhance traits already present in an animal—to breed a faster racehorse, or a chicken with bigger thighs—but it’s unlikely to completely reverse those traits into their opposites. Evolution doesn’t work that way. Speaking to the Guardian, Canadian professor Jennifer Mather was incredulous about the company’s claims, demanding: “If they have somehow or another managed to selectively breed calm octopuses, where’s their data?” Tellingly, none has been forthcoming.
Suppose, though, that we grant the unlikely—that there actually are miraculously calm octopi in Nueva Pescanova’s tanks. Does this make it okay to freeze them to death? Does it make the practice humane? Again, the evidence says otherwise. In 2009, scientists at Norway’s University of Bergen published a study of live freezing as a method of slaughter, using the turbot fish as their subject, in the journal Animal Welfare. They found that, once the water temperature dropped below a certain level, “the muscles contracted (cold shortening) and, although the fish were still alive, they reverted to a state of rigor, leading to a complete breakdown in their ability to move or ventilate and resembling an unconscious condition or death.” These symptoms, the scientists add, “are generally associated with stress and, in the case of observed forced muscle contractions, could lead to severe pain.” Now, keep in mind that the nervous system of an octopus is significantly more complex and sensitive than that of a flatfish like the turbot. For one thing, the octopus has clusters of neurons in its tentacles that can function as eight independent pseudo-brains. To take such an animal and subject it to a killing process where it’s paralyzed and racked with muscle spasms, but still alive and potentially conscious for an unknown amount of time, is far from humane or merciful. It’s one of the cruelest forms of torment imaginable, and Nueva Pescanova wants to inflict it on an industrial scale.
Finally, what about the argument that an octopus farm would help to conserve the wild population? There’s reason to doubt this, too. A 2019 study in the journal Conservation Biology compared statistics on the number of fish raised in hatcheries worldwide against those caught in the wild, using nine different statistical models, and found only one model in which farmed fish replaced wild ones in the overall seafood market. If anything, the researchers commented, “aquaculture may contribute to greater demand for seafood as a result of the social processes that shape production and consumption,” actually encouraging more fishing. For a concrete example, we can look at wild salmon. The number caught between 1988 and 1997 rose by 27 percent, despite a substantial increase in farm production during that time. In the Pacific, salmon are now severely overfished, and farming has done little or nothing to help. With octopi, there’s every possibility that a similar pattern could play out. Increase the global supply by 3,000 metric tons, and octopus meat would become cheaper and more readily available in stores, leading to more demand, not less—both for the unlucky cephalopods in the farms and their wild relatives.
And then there’s the reason factory farming has always been a terrible idea, even if you don’t care about ethics or conservation: the near-inevitability of disease outbreaks. Whether on land or sea, it’s inherently unsanitary to cram hundreds of animals together in the tightest possible quarters. In the mammoth chicken farms operated by companies like Tyson and Perdue, the birds are constantly standing in their own feces, breathing it in; if one gets sick, the infection soon spreads across the entire building. When diseases like avian or swine flu break out, factory farms and slaughterhouses are always the biggest vectors of contagion, creating dangerous conditions for workers and for the general public. Outbreaks of salmonella in farmed meat happen on a fairly regular basis, with 27 known outbreaks between 2012 and 2019, and can seriously sicken human consumers. Now, remember that 10-15 percent mortality rate from Nueva Pescanova’s files? Remember how they want at least ten octopi per cubic meter of water? When one of those octopi inevitably dies, in one of the thousand tanks, it’s going to be floating around, decaying, for a while before anyone can fish it out. Its tankmates may eat its carcass and be exposed to any of the “wide variety of pathogens, mainly bacteria, protozoa and metazoan parasites” that their species is prone to. Even on an ordinary day, a steady diet of “discards and by-products” will take its toll. One way or another, things are going to get nasty in there. Where thousands of gallons of wastewater will go is a whole separate question, and it’s unlikely to have a pleasant answer—the only real options are to dump it into the ground or into the sea, after some amount of filtration. How much filtration? Will it be 100 percent effective? Would you drink the tap water downstream from this place?
Even this is missing the point, though. It’s a mistake to let the debate around a mass-slaughter facility like this one get bogged down in particulars. The issue isn’t whether a million octopi will be killed in a more or less painful way, or under more or less hygienic conditions. The issue is whether it’s acceptable to kill them at all, and nobody seems to be willing to ask this basic question. In the otherwise excellent Guardian piece on Nueva Pescanova, one professor of environmental science is careful to stipulate that “we’re not having the conversation of should we eat octopus or not,” only whether “mass production” is appropriate. A psychologist, meanwhile, says that “just because an animal has been deemed sentient, doesn’t mean we can’t farm them,” so long as “certain practices” are followed. Which begs the question: why doesn’t it? If you acknowledge that a being is sentient—and the scientific community, along with the London School of Economics and Political Science, has done just that—how can it possibly be justifiable to snuff out its life, slice open its flesh, and throw it on the grill? How is that not murder, plain and simple?
The culprit, as usual, is the market itself. Under the current economic system, the only law is supply and demand. It doesn’t matter if something is clearly unethical, as long as it’s profitable; in fact, the crueler the conditions, the more money there is to be made. That’s the logic that’s already been applied to ocean creatures like shrimp and trout, which are forced into ever-smaller enclosures to increase profits and given the bare minimum of food and sanitation. Now, the industry is looking to expand and place another species on the chopping block. For them, it’s just good business. If consumers want to buy the corpses of octopi, that demand must be met, no matter how hideous the consequences. If a company can add half a percent to their bottom line by forcing animals into lives filled with filth and misery, they’ll do it without a second’s hesitation. These things can’t be reformed from within the market system. Instead, change has to come from the political sphere, exerting power over the market. Some demands are simply unacceptable. Companies can’t be allowed to flood the market with cheap, bloodstained animal products, pumping up the public’s appetite for things that shouldn’t be produced at all. The consumer must be told “no.” The octopus abattoir must be stopped.
Already, there has been resistance. October 8 is World Octopus Day, and in 2022 people in 20 different world cities took the opportunity to raise their voices against Nueva Pescanova and its plans. Barcelona and Gran Canaria took the lead, as you might expect, but demonstrations also broke out as far away as Tel Aviv and Mumbai. In Madrid, dozens more protestors gathered outside Spain’s Agriculture Ministry on May 21 of this year, waving banners emblazoned with a purple tentacle and the words “STOP GRANJA DE PULPOS.” Online, a petition to ban octopus farming worldwide has gained almost a million signatures on the crowdsourcing site Avaaz. These are positive steps, but there’s room to go further. The fight against octopus farming could take lessons from the direct action tactics that activists have brought to bear elsewhere, like when the Animal Liberation Front cut through a chain-link fence and released 3,000 mink from a fur farm in Wisconsin this August. Legally speaking, I’m not allowed to say that such acts of sabotage would be a completely reasonable reaction to the violence of industrialized octopus production, so that’s what I’m very carefully not saying.
The idea of creating a factory farm for octopi is abhorrent because factory farming itself is abhorrent. The industry knows this to be true, or it wouldn’t take such elaborate efforts to hide its work from public sight. Nueva Pescanova and companies like it count on people to remain apathetic—to simply not ask questions about where their food comes from, or think about the suffering that’s required to produce it. And so, we must defy their expectations. Animals can’t speak for themselves, and their ability to resist abuse by human beings is limited. As Homo sapiens, we have a moral responsibility to speak for them and to mobilize our political power on their behalf. We can reject the future that corporations and their leaders have in mind for us and forge another. Together, we can create a world where the mass slaughter of animals is a distant memory and every octopus can swim free.