Are octopuses too intelligent to eat?

Staff at Sea Life Centre launch campaign to remove creature from human diet

The octopus at the Sea Life Centre in Bray, Co Wicklow unscrews jam-jars, dismantles Lego bricks and squirts water at unsuspecting onlookers.

It’s not the sort of behaviour that makes you want to marinate its tentacles in lemon juice and eat it.

Nonetheless, octopus is as common on seafood menus nowadays as shrimp or clams.

Staff at Sea Life, however, want this situation reversed and have launched a campaign to have the mollusc removed from the human diet.


They say their experiences working with and caring for a variety of octopuses, have shown the animals to be sentient creatures, deserving of special status.

“It’s difficult to prove, but any aquarist who has worked for any length of time with octopuses will tell you they not only think…they are all individuals,” Sea Life curator, Aisling Graham, said.

“They can sulk, usually by retreating into a hidey-hole and refusing to be coaxed out again, they sometimes get angry and turn their darkest colour and jet about their display in a strop, and you always know when they’re really happy. You just know.”

“For many cultures they are simply another food item to be harvested from the sea, and getting people to think of them in the same category as intelligent mammals will be a huge challenge.”

“We’ve a common octopus at one centre who likes his food delivered inside a toy Mr Potato Head, which he plays with long after finishing his dinner.”

Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate, relative to their size, and exhibit a range of complex behaviours, most notably their ability to change colour and shape when hunting or fleeing predators.

There's a video on YouTube [see above] which shows a "mimic octopus" alternately morphing into a flatfish, a sea snake and a lionfish by changing colour, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body.

The creatures were recently declared “honorary vertebrates” in EU law, to protect them from unnecessary suffering at the hands of vivisectionists.

Unfortunately for octopuses, their classification as a mollusc, appears to make them fair game, despite the brainiac reputation.

The campaign to remove them from our diet was highlighted recently when an American family killed and ate an octopus, while holidaying in Greece, only to discover later it was a rare six-limbed "hexapus", and only the second one ever recorded.

Marine biologists, desperate to study the mysterious octopus, were incensed at the wanton destruction of the creature.

The incident followed public outrage in Seattle when hunters caught and killed a giant Pacific octopus in a popular diving spot at Puget Sound.

Public opinion is shifting in the octopus’s favour if the horror sparked by these killings are anything to go by, Ms Graham said.

“It’s been suggested for years that octopuses are as intelligent as the average pet dog,”.

“There are very few cultures who would consider easting a dog, and yet you can eat octopus in virtually any seafood restaurant anywhere.”

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times