Octopus, also known as heʻe or tako, is a popular Hawaii cuisine, served grilled, smoked, fried, dried or raw. 

Around the world, people are catching on. 

A growing appetite for octopus from the Mediterranean to South America is driving researchers on multiple continents to study land-based octopus farming, a form of aquaculture that proponents tout as a sustainable alternative to catching octopus in the wild.

Unlike salmon, shrimp and seaweed, industrial-scale farming of octopus remains under development as scientists struggle to learn how to recreate the fragile, eight-armed creature’s lifecycle in an aquarium tank.

Solving the puzzle could mean big bucks. As overfishing chips away at wild octopus stocks and demand for octopus on global dinner plates skyrockets, researchers predict the price of octopus will trend up.

At Kanaloa Octopus Farm on the Big Island, figuring out how to raise octopus in a controlled environment is the research facility’s goal.

 

octopus in fish tanks
Jacob Conroy, owner of the 5-year-old Kanaloa Octopus Farm, said figuring out how to raise octopus on land sustainably is his life’s work. Courtesy: Kanaloa Octopus Farm

Located at the state’s Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park’s research campus, Kanaloa touts its efforts to farm octopus as a solution to overfishing. To help raise money for research, the facility also offers a popular ecotour where visitors can dip a hand into a water tank and touch octopuses.

Now the farm is under fire by a conservation group for animal cruelty. 

In a letter to Gov. David Ige on Friday, the advocacy group Compassion in World Farming urged the state to withdraw its support for Kanaloa Octopus Farm, citing environmental and animal wellness concerns

The group also asked the governor to impose a statewide ban on farmed octopus — or at least impose a moratorium on it until animal welfare legislation is passed to protect the animals for maltreatment while in captivity.

At Kanaloa Octopus Farm, “juvenile octopuses are collected from the ocean and fattened in tanks,” reads an excerpt from the letter to the governor. “Videos … uploaded to YouTube show octopuses instantly changing color in an attempt to camouflage themselves from tourists who are being encouraged to touch, feed and play with the animals.”

A small translucent octopus, nicknamed Casper for his resemblance to the famous cartoon ghost, was discovered in Hawaii’s waters in 2016. Scientists say it could be a new species. Courtesy of NOAA

According to Kanaloa Octopus Farm owner Jacob Conroy, much of the advocacy group’s criticism is rooted in misunderstanding.

“We have good intentions,” he said.

Conroy insists Kanaloa Octopus Farm is doing farming research — but no actual farming. He’s even considering changing the name of the research facility to avoid future controversy.

They’re claiming we’re the only octopus farm in the U.S. and that’s not true — there are no octopus farms in the U.S.,” Conroy said. “We market ourselves as an octopus farm, it’s a fun thing for tourists to hear, but we’re not farming anything for meat.”

Conroy said he doesn’t have any plans to mass produce octopuses for consumption, although the technology he’s trying to develop could be used for that purpose. Rather, he views his work as an effort to develop a new conservation tool.

If octopuses can be raised on land, he argues, then mankind can help protect them by building a gene bank to restore populations of rare species when they come under threat or by reducing the need to go out into the ocean to kill wild octopuses by providing an alternative food source.

“I got into this for conservation,” Conroy said. “I always thought of aquaculture as a plan B to the vast amount of devastation that we’ve done to the ocean. But there’s research that’s needed to make it a practice that’s 100% sustainable and that is the research that we’re doing.”

In its letter to the governor, Compassion in World Farming raised other concerns.

Two landmark pieces of federal legislation, the Animal Welfare Act and Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, do not apply to octopuses, the animal welfare group says. In fact, octopuses are not even considered “animals” by federal regulators when it comes to their treatment in research, the group said.

“There is currently no American legislation that would protect octopuses if they were produced commercially for human consumption,” the group says.

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Ige, declined to comment on the letter. 

Compassion in World Farming isn’t octopus farming’s only critic.

An octopus in an aquarium tank
The Big Island octopus research facility works with Hawaiian octopus and squid. Courtesy: Ryan Latta/2021

Although aquaculture is commonly touted as a method to combat the problem of overfishing in the open ocean, some researchers warn that, when it comes to octopus farming, it could put added pressure on wild fish stocks already depleted by overfishing.

That’s because octopuses are carnivores that depend on fish for feed.

“Octopuses have a food conversion rate of at least 3:1, meaning that the weight of feed necessary to sustain them is about three times the weight of the animal,” according to a 2019 study authored by a New York University-led team of researchers that argues octopus farming would cause more harm than good. 

“Given the depleted state of global fisheries and the challenges of providing adequate nutrition to a growing human population, increased farming of carnivorous species such as octopus will act counter to the goal of improving global food security.”

Compassion in World Farming never contacted Kanaloa Octopus Farm before publicizing its concerns to the governor, according to Conroy. He said he wishes it had.

He says Kanaloa Octopus Farm doesn’t only study octopuses, but several kinds of Hawaiian cephalopods, including Hawaiian bobtail squid. Most of the species Conroy studies are not food animals, he said.

Researchers at the facility are typically only working with about 10 animals at any given time, according to Conroy. He said he and his team provide them with around-the-clock care.

“We’re there all the time,” he said. “I don’t get a Christmas or Thanksgiving because the animals don’t get that either.”

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