Octopuses are ‘too smart’ to eat — and so are other sea animals

By Paula Moore

Gwyneth Paltrow made headlines recently when she declared that octopuses are “too smart to be food.” During a Slack chat with her Goop coworkers, Paltrow recounted the story of Inky — the octopus who famously escaped from his enclosure at the National Aquarium of New Zealand and slid down a 164-foot drainpipe to freedom — and said, “I had to stop eating them.”

She’s right: Octopuses are extremely intelligent, resourceful and inquisitive, and we would do well to leave these Einsteins of the ocean off our plates. But I’d go even further than Paltrow: We should give all sea animals the benefit of the doubt and take seriously the moral implications of eating them.

Paltrow is hardly the first person to come to the conclusion that clever octopuses are friends, not food. Several years ago, a chain of aquariums in the U.K. launched a campaign to urge the public to stop eating them. “[A]ny aquarist who has worked for any length of time with octopuses will tell you they not only think … they are all individuals,” explained Sea Life curator Aisling Graham at the time.

Octopuses use tools, communicate with one another and form social bonds. They have been observed carrying and using coconut shells as shelter and wielding the poisonous tentacles of Portuguese man-of-wars like swords. They can navigate mazes, solve puzzles and open childproof jars.

Octopuses’ cephalopod cousins — squid and cuttlefish — are also highly intelligent, self-aware animals. Squid can pass the “mirror test,” which is commonly used to demonstrate self-recognition and consciousness. And both squid and cuttlefish use complicated color patterns and waves to communicate with potential mates, prey and rival suitors. Some researchers have likened these displays to a type of visual language.

But cephalopods aren’t the only smarties in the sea. Rabbitfish pair up and take turns keeping watch for predators so that their friends can safely eat. Rainbowfish can learn to escape a net via a single hole after only five trial runs — and remember the escape route a year later. Catfish and cichlids glue their eggs to leaves and small rocks so that they can carry the precious cargo to safety. And goldfish can tell the difference between music by Bach and by Stravinsky.

Scientists have verified that sea animals are also capable of experiencing pain. Octopus expert Dr. Jennifer Mather says, “[Octopuses] can anticipate a painful, difficult, stressful situation — they can remember it. There is absolutely no doubt that they feel pain.” Biologist Culum Brown, author of a study about fish sentience in the journal Animal Cognition, maintains that “it would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain.”

And Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, author of What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, says that we “grossly underestimate” fish. “They are not just things; they are sentient beings with lives that matter to them.” Yet despite the evidence that fish are smart, sensitive animals with a capacity for suffering, we continue to kill them by the billions every year. According to Balcombe, “lined up end to end,” these estimated half-trillion dead fish “would reach the sun.”

We continue to learn more about the intelligence, talent and awe-inspiring capabilities of other animals. If we want to call ourselves “thinking animals,” the least we can do is acknowledge that each of these beings is an individual — a “who,” not a “what” — and allow them to live their lives in peace.