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- The proposal to bring together thousands of animals in an octopus megacity would scale octopus culture far beyond anything found in nature or in captivity.
- It would create hundreds of thousands of cultured aquatic animals that would be taken into captivity, forcing them to live together in what is sure to be a violent octopus slum.
- Right now we are learning that squid have emotions and culture, and we are beginning to reconsider current intensive farming practices.
A recently proposed aquaculture octopus farm in the Canary Islands would raise 3,000 tons of octopus per year, meaning nearly 275,000 individual octopuses are killed annually.
My research examines animal minds and ethics, and to me the term “octopus culture” is reminiscent of Octopolis and Octlantis, two communities of wild squid in Jarvis Bay, Australia.
In Octopolis, numerous octopuses share – and fight over – a few square meters of seabed. In these aquatic cities, octopuses form dominance hierarchies, and they have begun to develop new behaviors: male octopuses compete for territory, and perhaps females, by throwing debris at one another and boxing.
Octopus Community Building
The discovery of squid communities came as a surprise to biologists, who have long described squid as solitary animals that interact with others in three specific contexts: hunting, avoiding being hunted, and mating.
What Octopolis suggests can happen in the wild, which has also been observed in captive octopuses: when octopuses live in too dense an environment in captivity, they form dominance hierarchies.
In their struggles for power, male squid perform a variety of antagonistic behaviors, including tossing scallops in defense of their den and the “mantle up,” which makes a squid appear like a menacing vampire. Submissive octopuses signal their obedience with bright colors and flattened postures. For their efforts, the dominants seem to get better access to quality dens and to females.
What’s going on in Octopolis and Octlantis is rightly called octopus culture. The idea of animal culture came about after scientists noticed that animals in some groups perform actions not seen in other groups of the same species.
One of the earliest proponents of animal cultures was the Japanese primatologist Kinji Imanishi, who in the 1950s observed a group of Japanese macaque monkeys on the island of Koshima rinsing sweet potatoes in water before eating them.
This was a new behavior not observed in other groups of macaques, and observers have been fortunate to observe its origins. A monkey named Imo was the first to wash a potato in the salty water, and others soon copied it, leading to a community-wide pattern of behavior.
The idea of animal culture drove subsequent Japanese primatology, but culture did not receive much attention in Europe and North America until 1999, when an article on culture in chimpanzees was published. Since then, cultural evidence – socially learned group-typical behaviors – can be found in the entire animal kingdom, including fish, birds and insects.
A new species of octopus
The proposal to create a squid farm is a proposal to create a new squid culture, because when cultural animals are brought together, they cannot help but create a society. It is also a proposal to create a new species of octopus: the cultural behaviors coupled with the captive environment will be a novel environmental niche that will shape subsequent evolution.
Our familiar farm animals—like Angus cows and Chcktaw pigs—have been domesticated and are radically different from the animals from which they evolved.
Many of our pets cannot survive without human care. Examples are pet rabbits, which evolved without instincts and wild rabbits need to be colored to protect them from predators, sheep, whose wool gets too thick without regular trimming, and meat chickens, which cannot walk as adults because their breasts are too heavy.
Starting a squid farm is a commitment to creating a new species of animal that depends on humans for its existence. It is not an idea to be taken lightly, or a project to be responsibly attempted and then discarded if it proves too difficult or unprofitable.
Management of squid populations
There are many reasons to worry that a squid farm will not be easy to manage. Unlike other farm animals, squid need their space. Octopolis is already a battleground for box octopuses; one can only wonder what that will be like at the scale of thousands.
Squid are sentient – they are emotional animals that feel pain. A recent report commissioned by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reviewed the scientific evidence for pain experiences in cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish).
Sentient animals used for food are protected by animal welfare laws and are killed in a manner that minimizes their pain. Current methods of slaughtering squid include clubbing, brain cutting, or smothering. The report’s authors conclude that none of these slaughter methods are humane and advise against octopus farming.
Squid are escape artists. The type of housing needed to house them will be difficult to achieve, especially if they are also enriching, as an enriched environment is full of possible escape routes.
If a squid farm is started and then abandoned, the thousands of domesticated cultured octopuses cannot be released into the sea and cannot be expected to thrive. We’ve learned from the many costly attempts to release Keiko, the orca that starred in the film Free Willy franchise that successfully reintroducing captive cultured animals is not easy. Even after spending $20 million, Keiko died in captivity.
The proposal to bring together thousands of animals in an octopus megacity would scale octopus culture far beyond anything found in nature or in captivity. It would create hundreds of thousands of keikos, cultured aquatic animals captured from the wild and brought into captivity. And it would force them to live together and create a new culture in what was sure to be a violent octopus slum.
Right now we are learning that squid have emotions and culture, and we are beginning to reconsider current intensive farming practices.
It is exactly the wrong time to propose such a scheme. We know better now.
Kristin Andrews is Professor of Philosophy at York University, Canada.
This article was republished by The conversation.