Sandwiched here between the Pacific Ocean and Kona Airport — atop a dusty volcanic desert — dozens of 100-gallon water tanks gurgle and bubble away; each home to a solitary, wild-caught octopus and a couple of floating, plastic bath toys.
Situated on land owned and operated by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, the Kanaloa Octopus Farm bills itself as a research institute designed to help tease apart the secrets of the day octopus’ reproductive cycle. Doing so, farm owner Jacob Conroy and his staff say, could help protect the species from overfishing by providing humanity with a stable, captive-bred population of protein-packed cephalopods.
“Right now pretty much every octopus you have ever seen — whether it is the ones you see here today, in an aquarium or even on your dinner plate — have all been wild caught,” said Carmelle Joyner, a farm biologist and tour guide. “There is no method for raising octopus in captivity. This means that we are taking them all from our oceans and our reefs. ... We are hopeful that if we can figure out how to raise them here, our research can be used to apply to other places to help out their natural population.”
But if the prospect of establishing a farmed and sustainable source of octopus — a delicacy of Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican cuisines — inspires delight among some diners, Conroy’s farm has come under harsh criticism from those who say keeping octopuses in captivity is cruel.
The farm, which invites visitors to pet the invertebrates — and also features a gift shop stocked with octopus-inspired jewelry and Christmas ornaments — has become ground zero in a growing movement that is demanding humane treatment of these playful sea dwellers.
As scientific evidence of octopuses’ intelligence and self-awareness grows, advocates are calling the farm a singular horror show in which wild and curious day octopuses are captured and confined in sterile tanks, where they spend the rest of their short, yearlong lives being poked, prodded and chased by the fingers and hands of gawking, occasionally shrieking, tourists.
“Octopuses are playful, resourceful and inquisitive. They have long-term memories, they use tools and they change the color of their skin for camouflage, but also for communication. They learn through observation. And most importantly they have the capacity to experience boredom,” said Debbie Metzler, director of Captive Animal Welfare at the PETA Foundation. “And yet the Kanaloa Octopus farm confines them to just this series of incredibly small, bleak tanks where they are just used for public interaction. This is exploitation. Not conservation.”
It’s a fight similar to those that have raged over the treatment of veal calves and force-fed geese for foie gras. Critics are asking whether Conroy’s startup and others should keep breeding and confining sentient creatures for a life with no agency, while providing little conservation value — the day octopus is neither endangered nor threatened — and for a food that is marketed predominantly to wealthy people.
Conservationists worry too that widespread farming of octopuses would imperil other sea life, since octopuses require immense amounts of live, fresh-caught crustaceans and fish while also producing large amounts of waste — which just gets dumped back into the ocean, harming nearby coral reefs and habitat.
“I think right now is the time to ask, why are we doing this?” said Jennifer Jacquet, professor of Environmental Studies at New York University. “Is it to feed hungry people? Is it because we absolutely have to?”
“We’re at a crossroads where we can ask ourselves, should we or should we not do this?” said Jacquet.
Conroy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On a Thursday afternoon in October, a reporter and photographer for The Times visited the Kanaloa farm with about two dozen tourists from across the globe.
Most of the outdoor tanks were occupied by solitary day octopuses who’d been caught just off the coast in the days, weeks and months before.