Is it ethical to eat octopuses? An acclaimed octopus expert and marine biologist weighs in

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel spoke about his new book, "Many Things Under A Rock"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 2, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Octopus in action (Getty Images/Nikos Stavrinidis/500px)
Octopus in action (Getty Images/Nikos Stavrinidis/500px)

Whether grilled, on sushin or mixed into stir fry or ceviche, there are many ways to consume octopus. But given their well-known, almost human-like intelligence, it begs the question: is it ethical to eat eight-legged cephalopods?

"You can't draw a sharp line of saying, 'Well, I would eat a clam, but I never eat an octopus, and neither should anyone else,' because there's a continuum there."

You might assume that an octopus expert would answer firmly in the negative, but this was not the case with marine biologist Dr. David Scheel. The Alaska Pacific University professor has been studying octopuses for more than 25 years and his new book, "Many Things Under A Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses," elaborates on what both he and other scientists have learned. This is no easy undertaking: There are more than 300 known species of octopus, and as highly intelligent animals, they have wildly varying personalities from individual to individual — much less from species to species.

Scheel's book covers the whole gamut of interesting questions about octopuses: Their feeding habits, their diverse range of environments, their life cycles. More importantly, though, Scheel's book reveals a childlike joy in spending time with octopuses that is endearing as well as informative. If one needed a perfect literary companion piece to the Oscar-winning documentary "My Octopus Teacher," this book is it.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is your favorite memory of interacting with an octopus?

That's a good one. Maybe my favorite memory was with a day octopus. It was the first time I saw an octopus come up out of her den. I'd already found her in her den, and she left her den without any interference from me and just went about her way foraging, and I just followed her. That was that, because it was the first time. That was pretty neat. This is a day octopus: It's the common name for octopus cyanea. It's the same octopus we have in Hawaii, for example. 

I had a takeaway from your book, and I'm going to address that takeaway with my next question. Do you believe it is ethical for humans to eat octopuses?

Oh, that's a complex question with a variety of ways that it might be answered. I don't eat octopuses anymore because I find them more interesting alive, behaviorally, than I think they could ever be on the plate. I don't think that people ought to be eating octopuses because it's exotic or interesting or just something they haven't tried before. But people eat meat for a variety of reasons of all kinds, and I don't think octopuses are uniquely different from other kinds of meat that we eat.

For some people in certain circumstances, they'd be a lot more ethical, I think, to make different food choices. But I don't think it's a blanket statement that people should eat animals. Overall I think we have a long evolutionary history of eating animals and it's part of the ways that we interact with the natural world. 

Yet octopuses are not ordinary animals. I am going to be bold and argue that octopuses are more intelligent than chickens, turkeys, cows, or pretty much any commonly consumed animal in our culture except for pigs.

The pig is the obvious challenge there. And you've accepted it. So I think you probably have a point there. There are interesting things that octopuses do that you might not see in most of the sort of herd animals that you named. But on the other hand, chickens are pretty interesting animals. I haven't spent a lot of time with them, but there are writers who have, and there are people who will stand up for cows as well.

I think that the octopuses are a very unusual animal, but I don't think they're a particularly unique animal in standing apart from the rest of animalkind. They just sort of accumulate a whole bunch of interesting things into one species or one group.

Are there animals that you say should stand apart from animalkind? What about dolphins? Or dogs or cats?

I see the world as connected more so than I do disjointed. And so when I see the world is connected, I see that there are affinities and relationships that — if you look at those — they emphasize how similar we all are rather than how different. So you can't draw a sharp line of saying, "Well, I would eat a clam, but I'd never eat an octopus, and neither should anyone else," because there's a continuum there, and it depends what you're concerned about and what your needs are. There are people in the world who forage along the ocean shores as their primary way of obtaining food or as their primary way of exercising aspects of their culture. And for those people, I don't think we need to condemn their diet.

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"It's quite easy to over-harvest octopuses. And I think that we need management that takes into account the unique features of octopus biology."

I am inclined to agree. Would you say to that, to them, octopus meat is what pork and bacon are for us — you're consuming a relatively intelligent animal, but it still tastes good? 

My way of looking at this is, the biggest problem is not so much the choice of the animal you want to eat, although obviously there are limits there, but the choice of what your relationship is to that animal. And so the biggest concern for me is the kinds of things that we do to the animals that we raise for food. If you're getting your food out of the wild, that's the beginning of the interaction in a way, right? Whereas if you're getting your food from farmers who raised them, then the interaction has been going on since that animal was born. And so the biggest concern to me is what happens during that relationship from beginning to end. 

That actually brings me to my next question. How can octopuses be protected from over-harvesting?

Yeah, I do think it's quite easy to over-harvest octopuses. And I think that we need management that takes into account the unique features of octopus biology. They're fast growing. They live off the harvestable population out of the plankton, which can be highly variable and have excessive numbers in some years, very low numbers in others. I relate in the book one of the models that seems to be working in Madagascar. It's a model of restraint in which they voluntarily close portions of the fishery, periodically, to allow octopuses to recover. And so I think we need management, in our models, that has restraint. 

How has climate change affected octopuses? 

Again, a complicated story. I think there we are already seeing effects of climate change on octopuses. If we look at the octopuses in northern Pacific waters, it's pretty clear that following unusually warm winters or strings of warm winters, we have fewer octopuses in the population. So warmer temperatures leads to fewer octopuses. At the same time, if you look at the edge of the range of octopuses in the North Atlantic, for example, octopus vulgaris which is more of a temperate-to-warm octopus, as you move towards the northern end of their range, climate change seems to be expanding that range northward. And so following warm periods, it seems like there's really high recruitment of that octopus. And you get unusually large numbers of them on the southern coast of England, for example.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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