First octopus farm in Spain sparks debate over ethics
MADRID, Feb 23 (Reuters) – Spurred on by soaring demand for seafood, a company in Spain despite the debate, plans to open the first commercial octopus farm next year, as scientists discover more about the enigmatic animals, and some warn it could be an ethical and environmental disaster.
“This is a global milestone,” said Roberto Romero, aquaculture director at Nueva Pescanova, the company pouring 65 million euros ($74 million) into the farm, which is pending environmental approval from local authorities.
At the company’s research centre in Galicia, northwest Spain, several octopuses silently propelled themselves around a shallow indoor tank.
Two technicians in waders plucked a mature specimen into a bucket for transfer to a new enclosure, with five other octopuses.
Building on decades of academic research, Nueva Pescanova beat rival companies in Mexico and Japan to perfect the conditions needed for industrial-scale breeding.
The commercial incentives for the farm, which is slated to produce 3,000 tonnes per year by 2026 for domestic and international food chains and generate hundreds of jobs on the island of Gran Canaria, are clear.
Between 2010 and 2019 the value of the global octopus trade ballooned to $2.72 billion from $1.30 billion, according to data from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation, while landings only rose around 9% to 380,000 tonnes.
However, previous efforts to farm octopus have struggled with high mortality, while attempts to breed wild-caught octopus ran into problems with aggression, cannibalism and self-mutilation.
David Chavarrias, the centre’s director, said optimising tank conditions allowed the company to eliminate aggression and breed five generations in captivity.
“We have not found cannibalistic behaviour in any of our cultures,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced.
Any farming operation aiming for a high quality of life by approximating their natural habitat – solitary on the sea bed – would likely be too expensive to be profitable, he said.
European Union laws governing livestock welfare do not apply to invertebrates and although Spain is tightening up its animal protection legislation, octopuses are not set to be included.
Nueva Pescanova has not provided specific details on tank sizes, density, or feed, citing trade secrecy. It has said the animals are constantly monitored to ensure their wellbeing.
Despite increasing concern for animal rights, demand is booming, led by Italy, Korea, Japan and Spain, the world’s biggest importer. Natural fishing grounds are feeling the strain.
“If we want to continue consuming octopus we have to look for an alternative … because the fisheries have already reached their limit,” said Eduardo Almansa, a scientist at Spain’s Oceanography Institute, which developed the technology used by Nueva Pescanova.
“For now aquaculture is the only available option.”
Half the seafood consumed by humans is farmed. The industry has traditionally pitched itself as a means of meeting consumer demand while alleviating pressure on fishing grounds, but ecologists say that obscures its true environmental toll.
The project is pending approval from the Canary Islands’ environmental department.
Traditional octopus fishermen are also wary of the venture, worried it could push down prices and undermine their reputation for quality produce.
Pedro Luis Cervino Fernandez, 49, leaves the Galician port of Murgados at 5 a.m. every morning in search of octopus. He fears he will not be able to compete with industrial farming.
“Big companies just want to look after their bottom line … they couldn’t care less about small companies like us,” he told Reuters on his small boat off the Galician coast.