For decades, my father taught biology at Middlebury College in Vermont. One of his signature courses focused on invertebrates and, as a kid, I’d often tag along on class field trips to the Maine coast. Students would fan out across the rocky shore at low tide and count as many spineless creatures as they could—which, as it turns out, was pretty easy. There were dozens of invertebrate species to be found, including snails, crabs, starfish and, of course, lobster.
I didn’t lay eyes on an octopus, however, until I was about 8. My dad sporadically hosted a lunch for his class, to which he brought an assortment of invertebrates. Students would discuss each specimen, identify its various parts, and then eat it. That year there happened to be leftovers, which my dad brought home for dinner. He reached into a plastic bag, pulled out a greyish-pink gelatinous blob, and put it on our kitchen table.
My sister and I took note of the eight arms covered in dozens of tiny suckers, slowly realizing what was happening, as my dad fought to cut the meat, which had been poorly cooked, into manageable portions. It tasted like salty bubble gum, and my sister and I spat it out.
In early 2017, some 20 years after first encountering an octopus, 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 way to protect the species over the long term. And, hovering between a prototype and commercial scale, he’s at the forefront of the increasingly intense quest to build the world’s first octopus farm.