It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. Their line split off from ours around 400-million years ago and were the first intelligent beings on the planet, beating us to it by around 100-million years.
They have a beak like a parrot, a mouth in their armpits, ink like an old-fashioned pen and they breathe water. They have three hearts, nine brains (including one in each arm) and are so utterly different from vertebrates that if we want to figure out how to communicate with aliens they’re a good place to start. They also have 10,000 more genes than us, some of which they can edit as needed.
In the smart department octopodes are up there with dolphins, chimps and parrots and are aquatic geniuses in solving three-dimensional problems. They can open screw-top jars and complicated latches, escape through tiny holes (no bones) and have been known to recognise human friends after six months’ absence.
They communicate how they feel in technicolour skin patterns that make a chameleon look like a faded watercolour. The European Union acknowledges their sentience by making it illegal to perform surgical operations on an octopus without anaesthesia.
They’re also tactical hunters. A favourite food is shrimp. On spotting one, they have been seen compressing themselves and creeping up, tiptoeing on two tentacles. Then they slowly reach behind the shrimp and tap it so it springs into their waiting arms.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented Roy Caldwell, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies them. “And they can cup each sucker the way we use finger and thumb. Some of the species use the missionary position to copulate – sucker to sucker – in a frenzy described by scientists as rough sex.”
Enter the filmmaker. Almost every day Craig Foster free dives in False Bay. Returning to the same spot each time, he built up a relationship with a startlingly intelligent cephalopod called octopus vulgaris (the last word meaning “common”). He named her Superstar. She welcomed him with flashes of electric colour, trusted him and took him hunting. Foster is scientific adviser to BBC’s Blue Planet 2 and is shooting a film highlighting the uniqueness of octopodes. He’s clearly awed by them.
They do have a problem, though: us. People eat them deep-fried with a dash of soy sauce or boiled in sake and rice vinegar after removing their eyeballs, beak, innards and eggs. Sushi is an option.
The question upon which this story hangs is how many you need to kill in order to find out how many you can kill without jeopardising their survival.
“In False Bay, I’m seeing some threatened shark species moving out of areas where octopus on which they feed have been devastated,” says Foster. “Predators are vital for healthy ecosystems to function. The potential negative affects could be dire. Why take the risk on an already pressured ecosystem?”
In part, this has to do with a fisherman. Garry Nel is a tough, likeable and intelligent man who’s been hauling food out of the sea for much of his life. A slogan on his email reads: “A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
He has two boats, the Albatross and the brand-new Django. When needed, he has used Albatross for whale rescue (he was the first South African fisherman to do the whale detangling course run by the Department of Environmental Affairs).
Every year, for nearly 19 years, he’s been catching up to 30 tonnes of octopus in False Bay. In terms of his licence, that’s less than half of what he’s allowed. It sells for about R100 a kilogram.
His legal right to catch them has to do with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). Here the story becomes more complicated.
When apartheid ended in 1994 there were about 450 fishing licencees in South Africa – mainly large companies like Irvin & Johnson, Lusitania and Sea Harvest – that were all white-owned. This was patently unfair and the government called in Horst Kleinschmidt, a man with impeccable “struggle” credentials and organisational skills, to run government fisheries. He set about trying to rectify the situation.
As I write, DAFF urgently needs to be saved from the result of his good intentions. And they were good intentions, but appear to have fallen foul of political correctness, endless litigation, angry fishers, massive poaching and criminal syndicates.
“In the beginning I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says with a note of regret as we sit on his veranda overlooking False Bay. “You can’t run a socialist system inside a capitalist economy. It just doesn’t work.”
In an exhausting ground-up approach, Kleinschmidt and his teams consulted almost every fisher on the coast and compiled a massive document that fed into the best available science on quotas and marine populations. Applications for quotas were called for and around 20,000 came through the door – some from as far away as Soweto, many from cobbled-together co-ops of people who were merely crews or beachcombers.
In an effort to favour the small-scale fisher – working men and women who actually did the work – some 2,500 licences were issued. Not a few were immediately subcontracted.
That’s when the litigation began, with large companies contesting reduced quotas and co-ops demanding bigger ones. Boat crews were favoured over boat owners. Some quotas didn’t make it worth taking a boat out of the harbour. It was (and still is) bedlam. The legal fishing industry all but ground to a halt and poaching went through the ceiling.
“I discovered that the more you regulate,” Kleinschmidt tells me, “the greater the scope for poaching.”
Now let’s get back to octopods. Garry Nel was catching fish for a living. But the free-for-all hammered the coastal fish stocks so he got a licence for lobsters. “It was the same story,” he says over breakfast in a Hout Bay café as we watch colourful fishing boats rocking at their moorings. “Everyone piled in and the lobster fishery hit the wall. So I applied for abalone. Same again. Abalone’s shot and in the hands of gangs and the Chinese Tongs. That’s when I decided to concentrate on octopus. All these other avenues were being heavily abused and starting to dry up. Octopus was an underdeveloped fishery in an oversubscribed market.
“My aim is to catch 100 tonnes a permit because I don’t know how long we’ve got. Japan imported 80,000 tonnes of octopus last year, so it’s one of the few industries we can do something with. But if the mob gets into that here I’m leaving the country.”
Keeping “the mob” out, though seemingly a good thing, has a whiff of collusion and, if you’ll excuse the term, smells just a bit fishy. Here’s why. Around 15 years ago Nel was given an exploratory licence, the idea being to use the information to see if fishing octopodes was viable and could be declared a legitimate fishery with set quotas.
The parameters of the experiment were minutely defined. Trapping-pot size, pot numbers, depth placement, careful documentation of catches, sex ratios, population size, diet and respect for spawning seasons. This would be checked by a fishery control officer from the department who would note catch methods, catch weights and appropriate transfer of skills to previously disadvantaged locals.
This data would include economic, scientific and environmental information and if adverse effects on the octopus population or the environment were found, the department reserved the right to terminate the fishery. Anne Oosthuisen of Rhodes University did a detailed study of the potential for such a fishery.
In legislative terms, the DAFF’s initiative was a textbook case of how to do it right. But the question is: how long does it take to get it right?
The data collection system, says Nel, was simply unworkable. DAFF has since eased the parameters for its collection and doesn’t have the staff to do regular spot checks on trips anyway. Nel collects his own data and hands it to them.
“They’re compiling it,” he tells me. “But if they’re not ready at the end of this five-year period, they’ll roll my exploratory licence forward again. They should have evaluated the data by the middle of this year but that’s obviously not going to happen.”
The scientists at DAFF are friendly people willing to entertain my questions. But I can’t quite get the drift of their answers about why 15 years of data hasn’t yet produced a decision on the viability or not of octopus catching. Something to do with not enough data, staff and being a peripheral fishery.
“We’re unable to give estimates for all the fishing areas that were initially proposed as there’s been some areas with poor or no data,” Angus McKenzie of DAFF tells me. “We’re not yet in a position to come to conclusions with the data we have. We’ll only really know when we’ve had a good look at everything combined. There’s been no scientific oversight for the past eight years or so. It’s not a priority project.”
As Nel is the only octopus fisherman in the country, data in “other areas” must be very poor indeed – like non existent. After a second five years he got another exploratory licence and is in his third such licence.
Photo by Craig Foster.
Kleinschmidt, now retired, agrees there’s something very odd about this, but he hazards a guess. Perhaps, given the chaos in abalone and lobsters, the science team is delaying a decision on the legalisation of an octopus industry to prevent the same chaos there. So they just keep rolling forward the exploratory licence for the country’s only active octopus hunter.
Zooming out, Kleinschmidt admits he made mistakes, but is exasperated with DAFF in general. “How much further downhill can they go before the system implodes completely and before no fish are left in the sea? Its indecision and tinkering is mainly caused by the absence of leadership… and ill-advised calls by the ANC for political intervention in a domain where civil servants should act.” In the mess, he says, the coloured fishing community – the real fishers – have lost out. For many of them, their only recourse is to poach.
An important question in all this, of course, is the effect on the octopus population of 30 tonnes being hauled out every year. It’s in Nel’s interests to consider this population to be large, but he doesn’t really know for sure.
“We don’t know the actual size of the octopus population here but we do know it’s massive. Absolutely massive,” he says.
“How do you know that?” I ask.
“Experience and common sense tells us exactly what’s possible. Other countries pull out much more sustainably.”
Craig Foster isn’t buying that answer.
“DAFF don’t know the effect of trapping octopus. Every time I dive there are fewer and fewer of them. Now there’s a second boat in the water. They drop pots every few metres along lines that are half a mile long. They’re not only catching octopus, they’re entangling whales.
“And the idea that this is a humane way to catch octopus is absurd. Imagine thousands and thousands of highly sentient wild creatures trapped inside tiny plastic boxes for days on end, terrified, waiting, slowly starving. This is absolute torture for a creature with a mind that rivals high-intelligence mammals.
“It’s illegal in Europe to carry out scientific studies on octopus without sedating them, but it’s somehow okay to torture them for days in traps, just to make money and satisfy restaurant goers who have no clue about the horrors they’re encouraging.”
Photo by Don Pinnock,
It is clear that if DAFF’s licensing system hadn’t ended up as a bureaucratic nightmare, Nel would probably still be catching fish and not octopodes. The country’s traditional coloured fishers would be doing what they’ve done best for over 100 years. And if quotas were equitable and the justice system not so susceptible to corruption, poachers – now pulling out between 70% and 80% of lobster and perlemoen – might go back to being ordinary legal fishermen.
But there’s a more important question and it’s about morality. Octopodes, because they’re not part of our world in so many ways, don’t elicit much concern for their welfare. Even so, should we permit large-scale hunting and possible local extinction of a highly intelligent, sentient species before we know enough about it to make that call? DM
Main photo by Craig Foster.
If you’re interested in eight-legged cephalopods, read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.
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