Octopus farming: California becomes latest state to chew over ban

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Henrik Sorensen
Image: Getty/Henrik Sorensen

Related tags octopus aquaculture aquatech seafood

Proposals to ban octopus farms in the US state follow similar moves in Washington and Hawaii and come as controversy about plans to build the world’s first octopus farm in the Spanish Canary Islands continues.

Assemblymember Steve Bennett has introduced a bill – the California Oppose Cruelty to Octopuses (OCTO) Act – to prohibit octopus farming on land or water and ban the import of farmed octopus in California.

The bill, cosponsored by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Social Compassion in Legislation, aims to place California as a “humane leader on this developing issue” and pre-empt “the controversial and cruel industry before it has an opportunity to develop in the state”.

The campaigners argue that confining these “highly intelligent, solitary animals in unnatural farming conditions is inhumane, as there is a high likelihood of stress, aggressive activity, and high mortality among octopuses” in these settings.

“This is a key moment, not only in California but around the country, in the effort to protect octopuses from the scale of suffering that other animals already endure on factory farms,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Senior Legislative Affairs Manager Jennifer Hauge. “Californians have demonstrated their concern for the welfare of animals, and this bill is an opportunity to continue that commitment by leading on this issue with proactive legislation.”

Octopus farming could have problematic environmental consequences, the opponents claim. Aquaculture facilities for octopuses have the potential to create an increased risk of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, they argue, contributing to environmental pollution and potential algal blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones devoid of life, disrupting local marine ecosystems. Antibiotics and pesticides may also be used to control the spread of disease and presence of parasites — as they already are with sea lice in salmon farms — and these can end up in the diets of wild fish, making them sick and disrupting food chains.

If successful, the new law would become effective on January 1, 2025. Similar bills have also been introduced in Washington state and in Hawaii, where the Kanaloa Octopus farm was closed down in 2023 following a campaign by Compassion in World Farming.

Bennett added: “Octopuses are primarily solitary creatures that are not suited for large scale breeding. They have demonstrated an aptitude for learning and their acute intelligence is becoming well recorded among the scientific community. Outside the US, there is a growing trend of recognising the sentience of this eight-legged cephalopod and the inappropriateness of captive breeding and harvesting it.”

Unnecessarily cruel or a necessary solution?

The proposals in California come amid a decade-long row concerning plans for the first ever commercial octopus farm, operated by Spanish seafood company Nueva Pescanova and located in the Canary Islands. Campaigners have consistently raised deep concerns about the animal cruelty and environmental consequences​ it would cause.

In October last year the Aquatic Life Institute, an animal welfare campaigner, released a report​ uncovering potential pathogens at Nueva Pescanova’s proposed farm that could contaminate the environment and create public safety concerns. It said the farm is now facing new regulatory challenges that could present, they hope, ‘the project’s final blow’.

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Octopus farming proponents claim it is a sustainable method of production that will reduce pressure on wild populations of octopus. Opponents believe it is inhumane and dangerous to the environment. Image: Getty/olgami

But despite the controversy Nueva Pescanova told AgTechNavigator is it continuing with its plans and maintains there is a need for octopus aquaculture. “We are in the process of obtaining the necessary licenses for its construction, so we do not yet have a concrete date for the start of the operations at the plant,” a spokesperson told us. “Production is estimated at around 3,000 tonnes per year when the farm is at full capacity.”

The latest statistics from the UK Food and Agriculture Organisation reveal that global landings of octopus have risen over the years,​ and for the past 10 years has been between 350,000 and 400,000 tonnes. According to biologists, this is not sustainable. Nueva Pescanova therefore insists that given the growing demand for octopus and the need to conserve natural stocks of the species, aquaculture is the solution “to ensure the sustainable yield of a food with extraordinary health and nutritional properties”.

The octopus aquaculture project is “a pioneering scientific milestone in the world, born precisely out of the need to meet the increasing demand for this superfood, while helping to conserve the species,” we were told.

“Ensuring animal welfare is our top priority,” the spokesperson added. “We guarantee optimal conditions in terms of feeding, space, temperature, water quality, etc. throughout their life cycle. In this sense, our research team has achieved an environment inside the pool with optimal conditions for octopus culture that ensure their wellbeing and whose behaviors are evidence of this.

“We would like to add that this is a project with a solid scientific basis, and has the support of nine scientific research centres in Spain, Portugal and Mexico, including prestigious institutions such as the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, CIIMAR and various universities. We are currently working with the fifth generation of octopus, optimising its cultivation in four areas: genetics, nutrition, health and animal welfare, the latter being our central pillar.”

The spokesperson added the farm is subject to licensing and monitoring procedures in EU countries and must comply with strict requirements under EU legislation and national legislation to ensure it respects human and animal health and the environment.

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