SISAL, YUCATÁN, MEXICO—In a damp, darkened shoreside laboratory near the Yucatán hamlet of Sisal, Carlos Rosas Vázquez lifts one of the scores of small conch shells littering a black plastic tank. He coaxes its wary occupant out onto his hand. A mouse-size octopus with tentacles like knotted threads, ghostly pale save for big, black eyes, wriggles across his palm and twines around his fingers. Even Rosas, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who’s worked for years to turn creatures like this into a profitable commodity, delights in its prehensile grace. “Maravilloso!” he murmurs.
Around the world, octopuses have long been objects of desire and wonder. Now they’re becoming an ethical flashpoint, as researchers like Rosas puzzle out ways to make commercial octopus farming feasible and, they claim, relieve growing pressure on wild populations. Not good, a new contingent of critics contends: Octopus aquaculture will further deplete marine ecosystems and needlessly torment these most sensitive and intelligent of invertebrates.