Looking for organic and sustainable octopus farming

Photo: Álvaro Roura Labiaga.
Photo: Álvaro Roura Labiaga.

About a month ago Profand Group publicly confirmed that it had started its octopus farming career. However, the project is actually not that new. Octolarvae, as it is called, has been in operation for more than a year, but as its Technical Director of Development and Research, Álvaro Roura, tells us, "there are no deadlines set a priori". The Spanish company is not in a hurry, it just wants to go step by step to ensure that its line of octopus farming – based on ecological principles and a sustainable cultivation method – is established with all the guarantees.

Profand, a world leader in cephalopods, knows that patience can pay off. With increasingly overexploited fishing grounds, the solution of farming the species in aquaculture seems to be a good option not only for the market but also for its commitment to sustainability.

Resuming a project to continue paving the way of innovation

This new Profand aquaculture project recovers, or continues, two others initiated by the same scientific team that, also under the direction of Álvaro Roura, promoted another Spanish company, Armadora Pereira. Aquopus and Octoblue, as the previous projects were called, evaluated hypotheses based on the ecology of wild octopus larvae "to address the bottleneck of larval survival in culture".

"After these two projects we learned a lot about the biology of the species, closing the cycle completely in captivity, identifying the different parts that compose it and the difficulties of each one of them", Roura tells WeAreAquaculture. However, knowing that the time frame of octopus farming was medium to long term, Armadora Pereira decided not to continue with it and to go for another species in which farming was more consolidated.

And this is where the story of Octolarvae begins: "Being aware of the important progress made by these two projects and their ecological approach, the Profand Group opted for our line of research to continue opening the way in octopus aquaculture", says its Technical Director of Development and Research. As he tells us, the project is "a bet on the future, which seeks to establish a line of octopus farming with a sustainable farming method and ecological fundamentals, ensuring the welfare and quality of life of octopuses raised in conditions as close as possible to those they experience in nature".

Photo: José Irisarri.

Although it is a continuation of the path opened by Aquopus and Octoblue, Octolarvae is tackling new studies on the nature of the octopus, such as the Ecosuma project, carried out in collaboration with the Marine Research Institute (IIM, in its Spanish acronym), belonging to the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, in its Spanish acronym). This study delves into the larval ecology of octopus paralarvae through zooplankton sampling and, also, monitors wild and captive-bred octopuses in the Cíes Islands National Park (Galicia, Spain) with frequency transmitters. According to Álvaro Roura, this allows them "to continue to learn how octopuses live in the wild in the different phases of their life cycle – planktonic and benthic phase – to ensure that the culture is carried out according to the natural needs of the species".

Step by step, consolidating the results of each stage

As we said at the beginning, at Profand there are no a priori deadlines set for this project, but rather the results obtained in future crops will determine the move to the next phases. "It is essential to consolidate each of the stages of the cultivation process in order to move forward since there are many variables that come into play", Roura explains.

The scientific team at Octolarvae has now completely closed the octopus cycle. "Three generations of octopus have been successfully farmed in captivity and efforts are now focused on maximizing larval survival to reach the settlement phase", says the researcher, who adds that this phase is "the great unknown of the octopus cycle". Recently, Roura and his team – Alexandra Casto and Miguel Martínez – have written a scientific article describing it.

"During this transitional stage, octopus paralarvae that are swimmers during their planktonic stage, have to adapt to living on the bottom and learn to use their arms to move around and hunt. During this habitat change, there is also a less drastic metamorphosis than in other invertebrates, but it includes anatomical changes (an increase of arms and suckers), morphological (development of skin capable of camouflage), and behavioral (including a remarkable development at the neuronal level to coordinate the complex movements and postural patterns that we know in octopuses)", Álvaro Roura explains to WeAreAquaculture.

Photo: Álvaro Roura Labiaga.

Knowing all these details will help them face their next challenge: improving larval survival until achieving a standardized and scalable production method. "You can't move to the next step with guarantees without having a critical mass of paralarvae ready to settle and become juveniles. The next challenge will be to ensure that the settlement phase is achieved with the minimum number of casualties so that as many juveniles as possible reach the fattening phase", he says.

An organic and sustainable farming method

The Profand Group's project is not the first octopus farming project underway in Spain. Earlier this year we talked about Nueva Pescanova's intention to open what will become the first octopus farm in the world. Behind that project is a group of researchers from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO in its Spanish acronym), whose patent to develop the captive breeding of the species octopus vulgaris' was acquired by Nueva Pescanova in mid-2019. Like the IIM, the IEO also belongs to the CSIC, and given that the ultimate goal of both projects is the same, we asked Álvaro Roura what similarities or differences there are between the two of them.

"Similarities are clear, both projects share the same objective, which is to cultivate octopus. But the approach is essentially different", says Octolarvae's Technical Director of Development and Research. "The IEO has been involved in octopus culture since the late 1990s and has collaborated with countless research centers and universities to study octopus farming. After reading the projects and publications that came out throughout this time, their approach has been to adapt the culture of other farmed species to octopus, with mixed results", he claims.

"In contrast, the farming approach of my team at Octolarvae is 100% based on the way of life of the octopus in the wild", Roura continues. He and his collaborators have focused on studying how, when and where octopus paralarvae appear. "Thanks to these studies we have been laying the foundations of their planktonic life cycle in the open ocean and we have discovered how octopus larvae travel inside the upwelling water filaments towards the ocean", he tells us. In addition, thanks to the development of genetic techniques, they have described the diet of octopus larvae, and have also developed genomic techniques to determine their microbiome and diet. All that has allowed them to observe farming from a new lens and develop innovative lines of work based on the nature of the species.

Photo: Pablo Martínez.

"My entire scientific career, added to four years of in situ experience in cultivation, have allowed us to lay the foundations for proposing cultivation hypotheses that we have baptized as 'ecological', based on the way of life of octopuses in their natural environment", says Octolarvae's Technical Director of Development and Research. "This is basic science applied to a new farming model that seeks not only stable production but also a respectful method that, we believe, will consolidate our seal of guarantee".

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