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If an octopus is so smart, should you eat it?

Braised octopus at the restaurant Alpana in Chicago.  (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
By Dino Grandoni Washington Post

Octopuses can open jars, use tools, solve puzzles and even recognize individual human faces staring back at them through aquarium glass.

Should they serve as menu items, too?

Whether stuffed into sushi or draped over pasta, their savory tentacles have squirmed their way onto dinner plates around the world, serving as a staple of many East Asian and Mediterranean cuisines.

A growing scientific understanding of the cognition of octopuses and other cephalopods is now calling into question the idea of eating these problem-solving sea creatures – as well as our notion of what exactly makes an animal “intelligent” in the first place.

“They have a kind of exploratory, inquisitive, interesting way of being in the world that I think is unexpected,” said Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at the University of Sydney and author of the book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.”

Humanity’s relationship with octopuses is reaching an inflection point: Just as scientists begin to understand these animals’ brains, seafood companies are trying to farm them commercially.

Seafood purveyors say farming octopus will relieve pressure on wild populations and provide more of an increasingly popular low-fat, high-protein food. But proposals to open octopus farms are being met with opposition from environmentalists and animal welfare advocates worried about tormenting the intelligent invertebrates.

The U.S. government is now considering whether to ask for ethical reviews of scientific experiments on octopuses, just as it does for mammals such as monkeys and mice.

Adding to the sympathies for the squishy sea creature is the 2020 documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” Widely watched on Netflix during the coronavirus pandemic, diver Craig Foster’s documentary about his bond with a wild octopus won an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Clever as an octopus

On the tree of life, octopuses sit about as far from humans as an animal can get. About 750 million years of evolution separate us and the eight-armed creatures, suggesting that the octopus evolved its mode of cognition all on its own.

“When we think about evolutionary questions, there’s this bias in neuroscience to think about everything leading to a human,” said Robyn Crook, a San Francisco State University neurobiologist. “Cephalopods are really the only other animal that have a complex brain but don’t share our evolutionary lineage.”

In a sense, octopuses don’t have just one brain but nine: a doughnut-shaped main brain plus another eight for each arm, controlling limb movement. The arms are able to communicate with one another, possibly without involving the central hub.

“The arm itself does a lot of processing,” Crook said. “It’s a little bit like our spinal cord. And so a lot of information that’s received in the arms never makes it to the brain.”

In experiments, the mollusks use their nine “brains” to squeeze through mazes and press buttons to escape enclosures. There is even some evidence they can dream.

In the wild, they can mimic their surroundings by changing their color and build dens by arranging stones, bottles and shells. Some have even been observed wielding the tentacles from a jellyfish-like animal called a Portuguese man o’ war as a makeshift weapon.

Many biologists used to assume that intelligence arose as animals formed social bonds. A herd of elephants or a pod of dolphins, for instance, needed enough brainpower to work together to find a watering hole or hunt for fish.

As a solitary creature, the octopus defies that story. The common octopus only lives for a year or two. Male octopuses die after mating while female octopuses cease hunting and waste away just after laying their eggs. Researchers have even recorded cephalopods eating each other in the wild.

“The word ‘intelligence’ is not the best word,” Godfrey-Smith said. “They do show sometimes a decent amount of intelligence, but it’s not the most natural way of describing what’s special about them.”

He contrasted octopuses with crows. When facing a puzzle, “sometimes a crow will just sit and look at it, and essentially think it through, because then on their first attempt, they’ll do something quite clever to solve the problem.”

But octopuses are more tactile when dealing with a problem.

“They would just confront it with their bodies and manipulate it,” he said. “They don’t have that kind of sit-back-and-think intelligence so much.”

Under the sea in an octopus farm

For the Spanish seafood company Nueva Pescanova, their scientific breakthrough came four years ago. Researchers there announced they had succeeded at raising baby octopuses outside their natural habitat and breeding those captive adults.

Now the seafood firm is rearing its fifth generation of octopuses and is preparing to open its first octopus farm in the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa. Other “octoculture” research is underway in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico, China and Japan.

Some experts worry octopuses are particularly ill-suited for farms. The animals, they say, are too asocial and neurologically sophisticated to pen up together. Unlike cows or pigs, octopuses are carnivorous, meaning its meals must be fished from the ocean in a potentially unsustainable way. To boot, farming octopuses comes with the gory risk of cannibalism.

“These animals are just too curious, too sophisticated to be subject to mass production,” said Jennifer Jacquet, who led an influential essay against octopus farming an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University.

Nueva Pescanova said its farmed octopuses have not been aggressive toward one another and its researchers are working on ways to painlessly stun the animals. Its feed will be made up in part of existing byproducts from fishing operations.

Cephalopods, the company added, aren’t any smarter than traditional barnyard animals. Pigs, studies have shown, seem to be pretty smart, capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors and playing computer games.

“There is no scientific evidence as to whether they are more intelligent or sensitive than other species that are also raised for human consumption,” Nueva Pescanova said in a statement.

But Crook’s research strongly suggests that octopuses feel pain, just like cows and pigs. Unlike those farm-raised animals, for which there are standardized ways to minimize pain during slaughter, there is no known way of killing cephalopods humanely, she said.

Recognizing that capacity for pain, the National Institutes of Health is considering granting cephalopods used in research some of the same protections given to monkeys, mice and other vertebrates.

Under the proposal, U.S. scientists would need the approval of an ethics board before experimenting on octopuses to minimize discomfort and ensure they are well-cared for. Similar animal welfare measures are already in place in Europe and Canada. The agency is asking for feedback on the guidance until Dec. 22.

”The question is, should we cross that backbone barrier and start protecting cephalopods?” Crook said. “It’s an arbitrary division, right? Having an ossified backbone has nothing to do with whether or not you’re capable of pain and suffering, or feeling happy or feeling sad.”

Off the menu

If and when it hits store shelves, farmed octopus would arrive at a time of growing demand for the seafood. The market for octopus meat is expected to grow by more than 20% by 2028, according to Nueva Pescanova.

For sushi chef Bun Lai, it wasn’t an easy decision to stop serving octopus.

“It’s an essential ingredient to Japanese cuisine,” he said. “One of the most celebrated ingredients out of the Japan Sea is octopus.”

But the restaurateur took it off the menu of Miya’s, his sushi place in New Haven, Connecticut, because it was difficult to tell if the octopus he was buying was fished sustainably.

For Godfrey-Smith, the philosopher, his decision to forgo eating octopus is a “sentimental” one.

“I have too much affection for them to treat them as food,” he said.

But he doesn’t think eating octopus is a “particularly problematic choice” given that the common octopus is not endangered and – at least today – not farmed. Eating pigs or chickens raised in crowded factory farms, he said, is ethically worse.

“I think of those as really probably the worst choices from a welfare point of view,” he said.

This article is part of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways in which we appreciate, imperil and depend on them.