First post on the forum so be gentle.
TL;DR: The Spanish company Nueva Pescanova is planning to farm octopus and begin selling it on the market in 2023. They intend to sell 3,000 tons of farmed octopus per year, which amounts to several hundred thousand octopuses. This is concerning given that octopuses are highly intelligent animals; there are no released standards for how the octopuses are going to be kept and raised, nor for how they will be slaughtered. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of coordinated action against this yet.
Link to the article: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59667645
Really unfortunate development. Compassion In World Farming recently released a report on the subject and why it's a terrible idea.
I want to make a couple of points here:
1) Since octopuses are carnivorous, a much larger number of fishes will be used to feed them
2) Since this is such a new development, it's an important time to oppose this and try to nip it in the bud
First, I think this is a really good flag on an important issue and a great first post :)
As others mentioned CIWF have a good Octopus farming report highlighting the terrible consequences for animal welfare (underrated but I believe that Octopus could live 2-3 years in these conditions). I believe CIWF also presented the report to the Animal Welfare Intergroup of the European Parliament! They have also written to various places (governments, governors etc.) trying to have the practice outlawed or shut down.
Specifically within some of the key countries in Europe for this, namely Spain and Italy, Equalia and Essere Animali respectively might have interest in working on this. Though so far I am unsure how much either have worked on this.
However, I guess I’d say prospects for nipping this in the bud from a legislative perspective seem unclear to me. As in, say a country like Spain outlaws the practice of farming octopus (which in itself may be pretty unlikely), then I think a big multinational company like Nueva Pescanova (the company claiming to start the first commercial octopus farm) perhaps just goes to some other country they work in (and they are present in 20ish).
Further, research labs all over the world (US included) continue to chip away at farming octopus. And if one of the big seafood/fish farming countries in east asia (think Japan and/or China) takes up the helm, which they may as they have both big seafood companies and big domestic markets for octopus, I am really not sure we have the political power there yet (or will for some time) to try and nip it in the bud there.
A line of reasoning that I am maybe a bit more optimistic about is that perhaps we can nip this one in the bud from a capital perspective?
Nueva Pescanova (the company claiming they’ll be selling farmed octopus in 2023) has some seemingly poor financials. They went through a debt equity swap earlier this year and had basically declared bankruptcy and then restructured in ~2015.
They are reportedly planning to invest over 50M euro to create the farm. The farm will produce 2400 tonnes of finished product annually. The wholesale price for the wild type of this octopus product is ~11,000 euro/tonne (p.13). If that is the wholesale price, it gives ~26M euro turnover a year. I think it also takes more than a year to raise octopuses to be adults so they may not see that for 2-3 years, so maybe that should be modelled as being time discounted.
Then the running costs for the port facility would involve reportedly employing 450 staff (at ~20k euro each that would come to 9M euro/year). It will also take the equivalent of at least something like a few tonne’s of fishmeal per tonne of octopus (fishmeal at ~1250 euro per tonne) and would guess they have to use feed somewhat more expensive for octopus. Electricity sounds like a big factor too given they wanted to go ahead with the farm in the canary islands (rather than having the farm in Galicia, Spain the companies, headquarters, they looked to the canary islands because the electricity bill there would not be excessive). So might I’d tentatively guess they could be looking at millions of dollars per production cycle in electricity costs.
All that is probably why they are seeking a grant from the EU to fund this first farm. Otherwise they could be looking at least several years until getting a positive ROI on it. So I think that could be a good thing to target efforts against, as if the EU doesn’t offer funding, plausibly this farm doesn’t go ahead. But maybe Nueva Pescanova would just go ahead with it anyway though, and just absorb some greater initial losses though.
Same food for thought at least! I guess would be curious to find groups who might want to target that capital side of it now.
The company Nueva Pescanova receives funds from the EU for the development of the industrial process to grow octopus. Details on their site:
I really appreciate this comment-- thank you for taking the time to write it out.
Some of your thinking and estimates here seem reasonable and useful! I just want to pick up on one small subsection that surprised me:
"As in, say a country like Spain outlaws the practice of farming octopus (which in itself may be pretty unlikely), then I think a big multinational company like Nueva Pescanova (the company claiming to start the first commercial octopus farm) perhaps just goes to some other country they work in (and they are present in 20ish). "
Why did this surprise me / why are our intuitions different?
I think there might be some difference in optimism about the value of legislation.
I expect that preventative action is much more tractable than retrospective action to abolish an industry that has already been developed. E.g. see "It is probably easier to abolish a practice through legislation if that practice is not in regular use" here: https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/death-penalty#the-causes-of-legislative-change . So challenging the first example of an unusually negative (and/or unusually unpopular) practice seems especially important. If fighting this specific company encourages a battle that spirals across several countries and results in legislation in several places but fails to stop this specific company farming octopus somewhere then I imagine I would consider that to be a major victory.
Relatedly, I have in my head a model where anti octopus farming legislation in one country makes anti octopus farming legislation in another. E.g. see "Once influential international bodies adopt a value, they may exert pressure on institutions in other parts of the world to adopt the same value" at the same link as above.
Alternatively, maybe it's because you're focusing on helping the octopuses in question in this specific farm. Whereas my concern is not: "(how) can we prevent Nueva Pescanova farming and selling 3,000 tons of farmed octopus per year," but "(how) can we prevent (octopus) farming?"
Assuming ten pound octopi, that's ~600,000 octopi farmed and killed every year. I think that an octopus is ~30% likely to be as morally relevant as an adult human (with wide error bars, I don't know as much about the invertebrates as I'd like to), so this is pretty horrifying to me.
I agree that it's pretty likely octopi are morally relevant, though we should distinguish between "30% likelihood of moral relevance" and "moral weight relative to a human".
Do you think the initial post would have read better as: "I think that an octopus is ~30% likely to be as morally relevant as an adult human (with wide error bars, I don't know as much about the invertebrates as I'd like to), so this is pretty horrifying to me."?
Oh wait, did you already edit the original comment? If not I might have misread it.
I haven't edited the original comment.
Okay sorry, maybe I'm having a stroke and don't understand. The original phrasing and new phrasing look identical to me.
Oh, I'm sorry for being unclear! The second phrasing emphasizes different words (as and adult human) in a way I thought made the meaning of the original post clearer.
To those interested (as cited in the linked BBC article of this post) Jennifer Jacquet and Becca Franks are two leaders against octopus farming, and both are in EA farm animal welfare circles.
Jennifer Jacquet is established faculty at NYU, and Becca Franks is an Open Phil grant recipient.
If you are interested in reaching out, Jennifer and Becca are friendly and communicative and have collaborated on promising EA projects in the past.
I'm an outsider to this, but it is my sense there is no grand council looking after fish or farm animal welfare. This is it, all the people involved. There is no team B working on this.
Jennifer and Becca are formidable, there aren't many people like them.
This means that funding and support for new leaders and talent can make a big difference.
That is really awful to hear, and I'm incredibly grateful to the people who are working on this.
Thanks for pointing this out--- and I'd love to hear how I can help change this fact.
It seems possible that you are already doing this?
To explain, I think EA has the potential to have really talented leadership in animal welfare. Think of the people we know about:
If the above is true and they are useful leaders, it seems like that we can develop more talent and institutions through the work of CEA and other meta-EA activities?
Many thousands of people on the internet will write and petition to end this octopus farm. That’s valuable. But EA offers different competencies and theories of change that seem hard to get elsewhere. I bet many people would give up a lot to have the opportunity to support new leaders and create a competent, global movement to help animals.
But you know more than me about CEA (maybe at some point you will learn about other approaches and tell us about it? I don't know.)
This issue is gaining the attention of EU policymakers, including MEPs.
On April 20, an MEP from the Greens/EFA political group tabled a parliamentary question on the issue, citing recent research reviews to note that high-welfare octopus farming is impossible.
He asks whether the European Commission can "confirm the incompatibility of commercial octopus farming investments with the ‘do no significant harm’ principle, which underpins the EU’s sustainable finance policies and is the basis for EU taxonomy".
I don't have anything substantive to add, but this is really really sad to hear. Thanks for sharing.
Can one indicate briefly how intelligent octopuses are in comparison to vertebrates? Are they as smart as monkeys for example?
Here's some stuff I found while researching this a while ago.
Most of the evidence often cited for octopus' high intelligence are insufficient (though it’s an open question), including two behavioural findings below (i.e. hiding inside a coconut and opening a jar) and the often cited anatomical features (e.g. large nervous system). Undoubtedly, the evidence for cephalopod intelligence is unlike the evidence for birds and apes intelligence, both in the number and quality of studies, and in the level of complexity of the test tasks. In fact, given the hype behind cephalopod intelligence (mostly motivated by their anatomical neurological features), the lack of sufficient evidence seems like a good indication no evidence will be found.
Hiding inside a coconut
One study with around 20 octopuses in a single location describes this. However, the degree of flexibility observed doesn’t seem to merit being called “very smart” (and perhaps can’t even be classed as tool-use). All they describe is octopuses sometimes hiding inside shells, a few times adding them together (could be called “construct”, but a bit exaggerated), and four times carrying them for short distances. It does hint at some level of medium-term planning, which is generally taken as evidence of abstract reasoning in animals. Not so much “creative problem-solving”.
Octopuses can open jars to get food. I would not describe this as a puzzle, indication of being “very smart” or “creative problem-solving”. It is certainly not comparable to the kinds of tasks used as evidence for high intelligence in birds and apes. I found another study with a more complex task involving orienting a L shaped object through a hole that concluded “octopuses show behavioural flexibility by quickly adapting to a change in a task”; the task looks like a puzzle but I’d still say this is not “creative problem-solving” but perhaps some would disagree.
I'm a big fan of octopuses as intensely cool creatures, and the fact that they're so intelligent while being invertebrates is very neat from the perspective of understanding intelligence. Nevertheless I think this take is much closer to the truth than "as or more intelligent than monkeys."
I like the point that absence of evidence despite hype is good evidence of absence.
I am not an expert on animal intelligence, but octopuses seem as or more intelligent than monkeys from my limited understanding. They aren't proven as intelligent as the great apes--none have been taught a human language that I know of--but might have languages of their own, and considering their other feats I would be mildly surprised if there aren't at least several species which could learn a sign language which doesn't take hands.
It seems right to rank octopuses and other cephalopods very highly, maybe near the top, in terms of how much suffering they could experience due to human farming.
Note that we now probably have some ideas for getting higher resolution information about suffering. This gives important information about the suffering inflicted on farm animals. So suffering might not be directly connected to intelligence.
In the case of octopuses:
In the same way that the above environments might be nightmarish for octopuses, many factory farm practices probably inflict unnatural and tortuous conditions on animals, often for tiny economic benefit.
Sometimes, people seem to directly draw a line between intelligence and capacity to suffer. But I don’t think a simple mapping is ideal when considering how to reduce suffering.
To get intuition, it seems that many abilities or traits that we consider to be intelligence don't have anything to do with strength of feeling or suffering. For example, if I can do more math or write better, I doubt that this means my personal suffering from negative stimuli must be higher.
I've worked with people who are smart, they seem to have eidetic memory, extraordinary math theorem proving ability, e.g. things that we consider highly intelligent. From what they say and also their behavior, it seems these faculties are “disjoint” to their other experiences. Despite their abilities, they don’t exist on another plane of consciousness.
This isn’t directly related, but here is some background about popular sentiment and one kind of activism:
The Octopus farming event has gotten traction and reception in social media.
On Reddit (the basis for LessWrong/EA forum) the issue has a 92k upvoted post, which puts it among one of the top recent posts:
In addition to the popularity of the post, many of the top comments are also pro-octopus welfare. The post has are moderate toned discussions that try to persuade or inform people.
I'm unsure if there’s any connection to this particular post, but in the past, several people (near EA, but not funded by EA money) have worked diligently on Reddit communication.
What this means is more well received, top posts such as this for farm animals. It probably also means high effort comments, e.g. "nonviolent communication" and "emotional labor", that try to communicate and persuade, in a sort of EA way.
Over time, my guess is that popular discussion of farm animal welfare might have improved, with less heated, distracting arguments.
It's unclear if or how social media will stop this particular farm, but sentiment seems useful in other theories of change.
It's also good to know that in more than one way (senior EA academic leaders being the other), it's plausible that EA leaders and near-EAs might have helped moved sentiment.
I emailed Jennifer Jacquet and Becca Franks to see if they had any thoughts and they replied pretty quickly:
Please let me know if 1) you know of something I can read to get a summary of the relevant facts (this is really vague, but maybe someone knows a good resource), or 2) you know of ways I can help with this. (Writing letters somewhere? Volunteering some hours for a project? Donating? Posting on social media?)
This news has been driving me crazy, so I might as well try to channel that productively.
(So far, I posted a fiction review I thought was very relevant when I first read the news, but I wish I had a better sense of what would actually be helpful.)
Eurogroup for Animals (a European Union lobby group representing other animal advocacy organizations) has encouraged EU citizens to submit feedback in the EU's animal welfare legislative review - though it is better to make a submission on behalf of an organization rather than as an individual citizen.
In addition to answering the multiple choice/tick-box format questionnaire prepared by the European Commission (which addresses cage-free hens and fish welfare among other issues), one can add in a request to ban/restrict such cephalopod farming under the section "Is there any other comment you would like to add?"
Deadline: 21st January 2022 (Midnight Brussels time)
Eurogroup also has a report on "Decapod Crustaceans and Cephalopod Molluscs in EU Animal Welfare Legislation" and include the legal basis for banning such practices on pages 13& 14 of their white paper. I have not independently researched how strong this legal argument is.
I also think much of what Kieran wrote above sounds right.