Octopuses are not for farming: For once, we need more action from the European Commission to protect these smart creatures

Illustrated page from "I Cefalopodi viventi nel Golfo di Napoli" by Giuseppe Jatta. Published in 1896. English trasnlation; Cephalopods living in the Gulf of Naples. Artist Giuseppe Jatta, 1896 (Photo by Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images)


The European Commission has disclosed it will not protect octopus species under European law.

The Commission takes no interest in the octopus because, they say, “the existing legislation is not applicable to invertebrate animal species”.

That means plans for the world’s first industrial-scale octopus farm off the coast of the Canary Islands can charge ahead. One million octopuses will pump through the factory producing 3,ooo tonnes of octopus meat.

They will be jammed into tanks to grow for 18 months then be slaughtered by being frozen. Slowly frozen.

Some of you may think, “So what? It’s a slime ball with eight arms.”

Others will think the EU is already regulating far too much, “So what if there is less regulation? Anyway, it’s a slime ball with eight arms.”

I would normally stand with that last lot, but we are talking about the octopus: crafty, observant, intelligent, with eyes very like our own and a memory that will remember you or me and any insult we make.

With the EU dismissing any regulation to protect these creatures – these extraordinary, alien-like creatures, no science fiction writer has ever created an alien as extraordinary as an octopus – the signal goes out to individual states and factories that they need not protect them either.

Jam these creatures in a tank, freeze them dead. Who cares?

As much as I hate EU regulation, somebody needs to cry, “Stop,” since the Spanish authorities will not.

Is this an emotional response? No. It is the response of professional courtesy from one intelligent species to another.

That intelligence is what makes the octopus so extraordinary. Most intelligent beings such as humans can trace descent from common prehistoric ancestors – reptiles, mammals, birds, the lot, scientists tell us are all off the same tree.

 Not the octopus. The only common ancestor which humans and octopuses share is what was no more than a worm, and that was half a billion years ago. The intelligence of each species has separately evolved since that time.

As Brian Cox, a scientist and British broadcaster put it, “Intelligence at a high level has evolved in parallel. The intelligence was not present in the common ancestor at all.”

Which is why scientists find octopuses so extraordinary. The intelligence is so different from that in other creatures.

Its 40 billion neurons run down its arms. Each arm may have its own version of consciousness. It has a brain, but not as you would expect, it is doughnut shaped, and the arms seems to feed information to the brain instead of the other way around.

And what of self-consciousness? Cut off an octopus’s arm and he will survive. Indeed, cut off the arm of one octopus and another octopus will eat it. But serve up the octopus’s own severed arm and the creature will not eat it. It recognises it as its own.

One British marine biologist, Dr Tim Lamont, notes that octopuses are mischievous. On a BBC programme, he described a lab experiment like the one done on rats and monkeys. The animals figure out that if they press a lever, it gets some food.

Try that on an octopus. “The first two octopuses they tried this on, they played nicely, they pressed the lever and they got some food.”

“Then they tried a third octopus, which pulled the lever out of the wall of the tank and squirted the researcher in the face. It was just not interested. It can play the game, but it doesn’t want to. Why should it?”

Consider the two eyes of the octopus. They appear remarkably like the eyes of a vertebrate, which is extraordinary if we remember they evolved their eyes entirely separately from those of us who are vertebrates. There are differences, of course, especially difference in the pupils. Yet there are two eyes, large and watchful, in the head of the octopus.

Consider how an octopus, with no skeleton, can slither down into any coral reef crevice or between any sea floor rocks. The thing is a liquid creature. It can pour itself into a jar, and should that jar be in a lab, can sit and watch the lab technicians with its large eyes.

Watching, remembering.

I wouldn’t want to be one of the technicians at the facility in northern Spain where the octopus management is raising stock to shift to the Canary Islands when the factory is ready to roll.

The technicians will be keeping the octopuses in constant light to force growth, rather than in the near total darkness which is the natural place of these creatures.

They will jam them in tanks, instead of leaving the octopuses to live the near-solitary lives they live in oceans.

All of which the octopuses will note and remember.

At which point one desires the science fiction writers to come back into the story. Octopus retribution. Octopus rebellion.

One wants to see thousands of octopus arms with tens of thousands of octopus suckers, reaching out from tanks to grasp the necks of the technicians, and indeed the necks of the management.

Lesson for Spain, do not mess with highly intelligent slime balls with eight arms. Somewhere in the slime are enough neurons to choke you dead.

Alas, only in my imagination.

Still, that lab in northern Spain might want to think about it.