Ethical Considerations for Keeping Octopus in Captivity

Neogonodactylus

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A few ramblings on the problems related to the importation of “zebra” octopus.

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Wunderpus burrows in muck in the field, but I don't know of anyone who has successfully recreated a substrate in an aquarium that is conducive to burrowing by this species. My experience is that they will hide behind objects or occasionally go into a piece of pvc, but they do not excavate burrows as they would be in the wild. I am not an octopus shrink, but my experience with various species of octopus in the wild and in captivity tells me that these animals are stressed. Wunderpus in the wild have a very prescribed activity period emerging about one to two crep periods for a few minutes after sunset and again for a short period before dawn. When on the surface, they are voracious predators foraging over the bottom traveling several feet collecting small crabs and other crustaceans before retreating to their burrows. In captivity, this strict activity pattern seems to break down - again a sign that the animals are not behaving normally.

Many cuttles produce large eggs that develop into demersal juveniles that can be reared. I am totally in favor of working with these animals to develop efficient and effective culture techniques. How many octopus with small eggs that develop into paralavrae have been reared? I know of one and that was accomplished expending Herculean effort. It is not realistic to think that Wunderpus or the mimic are going to be cultured using ordinary technology that is available to even the most sophisticated aquarist.

As for the refrain that we don't know much about these animals in the wild and that this some how justifies continuing to support their collection and sale in the trade, I would say that we already know enough to be concerned.

How was it that these animals were only recognized two decades ago? Why is it that there were almost none of these animals in museum collections taken from habitats where these animals are found? How is it that some of the best dive guides in the world go for months without spotting a single animal? Why is it that we know basically nothing about the biology of their larvae in the plankton or of their development until they reach adult status? Doesn't it make sense that an apparently rare species restricted to a muck habitat might be in trouble given that these same environments are some the most impacted by anthropogenic forces? And why is it that we are talking about species that are so rare and desirable that they are routinely selling for $400 each even though the buyers probably (or should) know that they will survive for at most a few months. One would think than if these animals were not rare, they would be flooding the market.

What useful information are we going to gain from keeping a Wunderpus in a glass box that is too small to allow it to behave in a species typical manner and on a substrate that prevents it from withdrawing from the world? Every photograph that can be taken has probably already been taken in the wild – or could be. Formal controlled studies of the stimuli that elicit mimcry don’t mean much in a stressed animal and for that matter, I’m not aware of reports that these animals exhibit a normal range of mimicry in captivity. There is some information that might be gained on venom (we tried) and other information available from preserved specimens (ovarian development, taxonomic characters, etc.) I also mentioned in an earlier posting that there was some molecular data that might be gained that could elucidate phylogenetic relationships. However, without good information on the exact origin of the specimen, the value of such data is limited. Perhaps more relevant, the vast majority of animals imported are being allowed to rot in their tank or go down the toilet and contribute nothing to our knowledge of these species.

I'm sorry, but I just cannot accept the argument that because we don't have detailed information on these animals in the field that this some how justifies promoting the importation of as many as the collectors can supply.

Those of you who have read my comments on this and other forums know that I do not buy into arguments that fall into the category of "ethics". I grew up on a farm, was an avid hunter, eat meat (including cephalopods), and have destroyed my share of habitat studying stomatopods and octopus. What I care about is the preservation of marine habitats and the biodiversity they support. When there are legitimate lines of scientific study to be pursued, I support it whether it be in the field or aquarium. Zebras are just one small, but very visible piece of the problems being created by the wholesale importation of exotic species for entertainment.

Do I have an answer. No, except that protection can only come through legislation and enforcement. When I was involved in the discovery of the Indonesian coelacanth 10 years ago, we were extremely concerned that word of the discovery would leak out and that Manado would be over-run by public aquarium collectors hoping to exhibit a specimen and by individuals hoping to sell coelacanth parts as “medicines”. It took months to put in place protective measures to ensure that this species would have CITES protection, that the local fishermen understood and supported a ban on collection, and that the Indonesian government would protect them. Only when all this was in place, was the announcement of the discovery made and even then it was difficult to hold the line.

Zebra octopus are not coelacanths that already enjoyed international protection, but they do have many unusual and appealing features that might allow them to be promoted as a poster species for the protection of marine habitats. This is where I would like to see our efforts placed.

Roy
 

robyn

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Monty, here's an excellent article co-authored by Hal Caswell, who has published a large number of similarly excellent papers:

Ecology: Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 654–665. LIFE HISTORIES AND ELASTICITY PATTERNS: PERTURBATION ANALYSIS FOR SPECIES WITH MINIMAL DEMOGRAPHIC DATA (2000)
Selina S. Heppell,a Hal Caswell,b and Larry B. Crowderc

Here's a piece of the abstract: I hope its ok to post this here!

Elasticity analysis is a useful tool in conservation biology. The relative impacts of proportional changes in fertility, juvenile survival, and adult survival on asymptotic population growth λ (where ln(λ) = r, the intrinsic rate of increase) are determined by vital rates (survival, growth, and fertility), which also define the life history characteristics of a species or population. Because we do not have good demographic information for most threatened populations, it is useful to categorize species according to their life history characteristics and related elasticity patterns. To do this, we compared the elasticity patterns generated by the life tables of 50 mammal populations. In age-classified models, the sum of the fertility elasticities and the survival elasticity for each juvenile age-class are equal; thus, age at maturity has a large impact on the contribution of juvenile survival to λ. Mammals that mature early and have large litters (“fast” mammals, such as rodents and smaller carnivores) also generally have short lifespans; these populations had relatively high fertility elasticities and lower adult survival elasticities. “Slow” mammals (those that mature late), having few offspring and higher adult survival rates (such as ungulates and marine mammals), had much lower fertility elasticities and high adult or juvenile survival elasticities. Although certain life history characteristics are phylogenetically constrained, we found that elasticity patterns within an order or family can be quite diverse, while similar elasticity patterns can occur in distantly related taxa.

I might have the full text somewhere - PM me if you want the pdf....
 

Thales

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I have seen several mentions of 'zebras' being collected with cyanide. Is this speculation or is there evidence it is actually happening?
 

Neogonodactylus

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Not likely. It would be a fairly inefficient technique unless you knew where the burrow was. Spreading cyanide over hectares of muck isn't going to yield much. Bleach is used sometimes to drive animals out of the sand, but these guys are fairly easy to catch if you see them out.

Roy
 

Thales

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I agree Roy. I would be surprised if juice was used for these guys, and was wondering if the idea it was was internetfact or if someone actually knew it happened.
 

cthulhu77

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The most common method for using chemicals to collect octopus is usually urea or uric acid. Smelly, but efficient.
 

monty

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robyn;88661 said:
Monty, here's an excellent article co-authored by Hal Caswell

Got it! Thanks! I only read a bit of it so far, but it looks good...

- M
 

Colin

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According to my source who is an importer, cyanide use is still rife in certain areas. However, perhaps it is a misnomer and that squirting anything down the holes to flush out beasties is getting called that? That's my best guess...
 

Colin

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I let this thread brew for a while before I said anything, I bounced it off some other people... thanks :smile:

There are a lot of great points here and it is the necessary evil. This is exactly the kind of stuff we should be examining here and exactly the sort of stuff that a fledgling side of home aquaculture needs to address.
I haven’t been very active on the TONMO.com forums for a while now. Why? Quite simply because I don't keep cephalopods anymore.
As someone who has a purpose built heated shed with more than forty aquariums, surely at least one tank could have an octopus or cuttlefish? The answer is no.

I bought my last octopus in 2003 and in 2005 I took 6 baby Sepia bandensis which were hatched from eggs by a fellow TONMO.com member.
In 2003 I tried to order two Octopus vulgaris through the local fish importer, at which I was an employee of at the time. The exporter actually sent two blue rings instead! That pretty much was the last straw.

During my main flow of keeping octopuses I probably ordered somewhere in the region of 30 over 3 years. A dozen arrived DOA. Some were full grown dwarves and died within a couple of weeks. Others lived a few months. I also had attempts at rearing baby octopuses from gravid females who laid eggs in my tanks.
Point is, now I DON'T think it’s worth it and would rather that the octopuses stayed in the sea. I am not taking any moral high ground here because I still keep lots and lots of tropical fish, probably in the region of 100 species or more. Some of which are very rare in the trade. BUT at least I am breeding these fish and it's somewhere in the region of 3 or 4 new species per month.

To clarify, I can still buy fish at trade prices because I worked in the trade for some ten years or so and when I buy fish, I buy them 10 or more at a time. This means I am fairly assured of getting both sexes. My aim, as it always is, is to breed the fish. I now supply local shops and my importer with about twelve species of fish exclusively. The importer DOES NOT import those particular species from the wild anymore!

So basically that is a 10% success rate. So far... I have another 3 or 4 species that *should* breed in March.

This isn't meant to sound bigheaded, but I hold a LOT of clout with my local shops and importers. If I was at the LFS or importers and he ordered a zebra octopus and I turned it down and told him why, he wouldn't order them again. This isn't just a guess by the way. It has held true on several occasions; even just last week when all these ‘zebras’ started to appear again.

I don’t order them. I don’t buy them when I do see them. I offer advice freely and always point to this website when I can. Is this being morally strong or acting purely in the animal’s best interest and therefore also the hobby’s? Greg’s Hogg Island Boa is a good example of when things go wrong, you could also look at red ear terrapins or problems associated with certain importers bringing in species of ‘monster’ fish like Pangassius (adult at 6 feet), Phractocephalus (adult at 6 feet), Psuedoplatystoma (adult at 6 feet), Arapaima (adult at 9 feet) and so on and so on… They sell these things at sizes of 4” in length! Whatever you may think, you can vote with your wallet and not buying these animals DOES make a difference. Let me point you to the case of dyed and tattooed fish in the UK… it is now so well publicised and frowned upon by the public through education of the barbaric practice, that there are hardly any stockist who would dare to sell them!!! Let alone the recent craze of tail docking fish from the far-east for the sake of vanity! Imagine taking your pet fish out of the water and with no anaesthetic, cutting off its tail! It has had articles published in magazines about how you can do this at home! See here… Fishkeeping News - Practical Fishkeeping disturbing pictures warning!!! (edit: direct link no longer functional)

Some points on capture and exporting.
Richard did briefly describe the scenario in regards how animals make it to us as per Tony’s question but I think it glossed over a lot of issues…
E.g. many people who capture elusive animals like octopus still use cyanide or other chemicals. They basically dive down to an octopus’ den and squirt from a bottle into the den until it comes dashing out and they catch it with a net.

This practise is still widespread in SE Asia and well documented online, just Google it! It is banned in many countries for obvious reasons but still rife. I wonder how many ‘mystery’ cephalopod deaths could be attributed to chemical capture? A hell of a lot I’d guess!!!

Then, these normally small, family businesses have to keep the animal alive for a while until the exporter can arrive to collect it. They basically keep them in anything that will hold water. I have seen it for myself and it is pretty much light years away from the tanks we have set up and ranges from plastic buckets to old rusty bathtubs… what does metal do to cephs? Kills them.

So a collector might have to keep the animal for a week or two in substandard conditions until the exporter picks them up, then they get moved to the exporter’s facility. They might sit there for another couple of weeks until a particular order arrives for that species. During this time the animals are rarely, if ever, fed. That is because a 20 – 40 hour flight to the UK or USA might be less fatal if the animal doesn’t defecate in its own water… better not feed it then, eh? Also bear in mind that 90% of a cephalopod’s respiration produces ammonia and that being in a small bag for 20 – 40 hours is sure going to produce a lot of ammonia! Oh yeah, and they might also produce ink in their bag if they get stressed, again leading to DOAs. Really, what chance to these poor buggers have?

I have always been 100% behind the selling of captive bred stock so we can cut out the whole wild caught scenario. You won’t get any better a thrill from keeping a Wunderpus than a CB bimaculoides! Better yet, buy them as eggs as in the case of Sepia!

Now, once the animal eventually reaches its way to the country it’s going to, it is checked by customs where necessary and acclimatised to a new tank. In most cases the octopus is on sale as of the next day, or even the same day in some cases! Then off to a LFS, then from there, having been acclimatised yet again, on to a third tank in a buyer’s home. The animal may or may not have been cyanide caught and has probably gone through at least three different tanks in as many days! It might not have been fed for several weeks? Is the trade in marine animals fair and ethical? No, pretty damn far from it!

I think that the following statement ’The cephs that came in last week were packed very well, and I think the ceph mortality (4 of 10 cuttles DOA, 1 more DAA, and 1 'common' occy out of 6 and no 'zebras' out of 2)’ is appalling statistics. So out of 18 imported cephalopods only 12 lasted more than a day? How long did the rest survive? What killed the others? What lesson was learned there? What would be termed a success? Half living a month? 2 Months? 1 still alive after 6 months?

Dr Roy Caldwell said, ‘Once these octopus have been collected and removed from their home environment, they have zero fitness - they are evolutionarily dead.’ This is my sentiment exactly and in the last thread I asked, ‘what is the point in keeping them?’ They cannot be bred. A gravid female’s eggs cannot be reared. Nothing can be learned about their behaviour in captivity. What’s the point other than having a soon to be dead, but kinda cool in the meantime pet?

So, what about the wild ‘zebra’ population dynamics? Well, no one knows; fact! Anything from here on is just wild guesses. I won’t guess. Despite how this may appear I am not actually against keeping all species of cephalopod in aquaria. There is nothing wrong with captive bred stock, and I don’t have any problem with captive farmed stock (wild animals which lay eggs and the eggs are hatched and raised in captivity. I don’t even have a problem with species like briareus, bimaculoides or aculeatus which seem to be locally abundant. But when the experts are giving us warnings I think we should take heed regarding those species.

The UK is currently taking huge steps forward in protecting animals under the care of people. This includes farm animals, working animals and pets both vertebrates and invertebrates. I think that over the next few years it will make a difference. Legislation is needed to protect our interests and the interests of the animals we are interested in.

Animal Welfare Act 2006
Animal Welfare Act 2006
 
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cthulhu77

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Interesting events over there, Colin. I never considered myself much of a rights activist of any sort, pretty much believed it was a personal choice for everyone...and heck, I eat meat.
I stopped eating fish two years ago as a personal choice, but Shanlyn still does, and it doesn't bother me. But, this sort of thing with validating collection for aquaria is driving me crazy.

It's not just octopus...there are fish that are brought into the country that should have never been touched, far too rare and impossible to breed in captivity. It really makes me ill.
 

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