Octopus’ Garden

The race to build the world’s first commercial octopus farm
Octopuses raised in captivity, like this one, could save their wild relatives from overfishing

I first laid eyes on an octopus when I was 8. My father, who taught biology at Middlebury College in Vermont, sporadically hosted a lunch for his class, to which he would bring an assortment of invertebrates. Students would discuss each specimen, identify its various parts and then eat it. That year, my dad brought home leftovers for dinner. He reached into a plastic bag, pulled out a grayish-pink gelatinous blob, put it on our kitchen table, and cut the eight-tentacled, poorly cooked creature into portions. It tasted like salty bubble gum, and my sister and I spat it out.

Twenty years later, I went to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to meet Carlos Rosas, a biologist who aims to revolutionize how those gelatinous blobs wind up on dinner tables.

People are now eating more octopus than ever: annual global production has more than doubled since 1980, from roughly 180,000 tons to about 370,000 tons. But overfishing has already caused the collapse of multiple wild-octopus fisheries around the world, and current populations likely face similar threats. Rosas believes inland aquaculture—raising the animals from birth to adulthood in captivity—could be one way to meet increased demand without devastating the wild population. The approach has been tried with a variety of other marine animals, such as shrimp, salmon and tilapia, but octopuses have remained a stubbornly vexing puzzle. However, as the stability of wild populations has become more uncertain and the economic stakes have risen, teams in Spain, Japan and elsewhere around the world have also made significant progress on the surprisingly complex science behind octopus rearing.

Critics find the prospect of cultivating such sentient animals for food barbaric. They point out that research shows the animals are highly intelligent, exhibiting complex behaviors incompatible with the enclosed environments of aquaculture. Rosas argues that it may actually be the best

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