Lobsters are crammed together in barren restaurant tanks while they await their slaughter- likely being boiled alive. Crabs are pre-packaged in clingfilm, slowly suffocating and completely immobilised. Local authorities are powerless to take action as these animals have no legal protection covering their welfare needs.
But do these animals, and other decapod crustaceans and cephalopods, require legal protection? That is, are they sentient beings capable of experiencing pain and suffering?
Do decapod crustaceans and cephalopods feel pain?
There is a significant body of evidence that lobster, crab and crayfish (decapod crustaceans) and octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus (cephalopods) and can experience pain and suffering. Both crustaceans and cephalopods can experience suffering connected with capture from the wild, transport, being kept in captivity and slaughter without stunning.
The assumption that these animals cannot suffer has to be discarded, once and for all.
Ability to feel pain
As long ago as 2007 (just after our current legislation was passed), one of the UK’s foremost academic experts on animal welfare, Professor Donald Broom, wrote:
“There is evidence from some species of fish, cephalopods and decapod crustaceans of substantial perceptual ability, pain and adrenal systems, emotional responses, long- and short-term memory, complex cognition, individual differences, deception, tool use, and social learning. The case for protecting these animals would appear to be substantial.” https://www.int-res.com/articles/dao_oa/d075p099.pdf
Physiological studies of lobsters show that they are very stressed by the process of catching, handling, transport and being kept out of water. Many crabs and lobsters arrive at factories very weak, dying or dead. In addition, the behaviour of decapod crustaceans shows that they can recognise and remember painful or threatening objects or situations and try to avoid them. These animals also have the ability to learn and to make discriminations.
The likelihood that decapod crustaceans can feel pain is supported by the fact that they have been shown to have opioid receptors and to respond to opioids, such as morphine, in a similar way to vertebrates.
In addition, the behaviour of decapod crustaceans shows that they can recognise and remember painful or threatening objects or situations and try to avoid them.
Scientists who work with octopuses typically assume that cephalopods are intelligent animals that experience pain. Cephalopods have a well-developed nervous system and a complex brain, which is relatively larger than the brains of some fishes and reptiles. Cephalopods also show fear when subjected to pain.
Electric shocks have been used in experiments to train octopuses to discriminate between objects and they show signs of fear when subjected to such shocks.
When crabs and lobsters are caught, taken out of water and handled, they make vigorous efforts to escape. Lobsters make vigorous attempts to escape when they are put alive into boiling water to be cooked. They also often shed limbs, an escape response known as autotomy, which is likely also to be a response to pain.
Reports of octopuses escaping are not uncommon and, in fact, they have the reputation of ‘escape artists’. In 2016, an octopus, Inky, held captive in a New Zealand aquarium, made news headlines globally when he escaped through a drainpipe into the ocean. Inky moved the lid of his enclosure during the night and squeezed himself through the narrow pipe to the freedom of the ocean. An octopus held captive in Bermuda repeatedly escaped to eat the animals being held captive in nearby aquariums.
Do any countries afford decapod crustaceans and cephalopods legal protection?
Yes, several countries do recognise decapod crustaceans and cephalopods as protected animals under its animal welfare legislation. Decapod crustaceans are protected under animal welfare legislation in Norway, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and some Australian states and territories; as well as in some regions of Germany and Italy.
The UK has decided that the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) should be included in the scope of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which previously applied only to vertebrates.
And, in fact, decapod crustaceans (lobster, crab and crayfish) are actually listed as Category 1 animals under European animal welfare guidelines. Category 1 animals are those animals where:
“The scientific evidence clearly indicates, either directly or by analogy with animals in the same taxonomic groups, that animals in those groups are able to experience pain and distress”.
These animals deserve legal protection- how can I help?
Scotland’s animal welfare legislation will be updated this year and so now is the perfect time to ask the Scottish Government to include cephalopods and crustaceans as protected animals under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 Act. You can check out our campaign here.
Please write to the Minister for Rural and the Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon MSP, and ask her to support our proposal to include cephalopods and decapod crustaceans within the definition of protected animal under Scotland’s animal welfare legislation. You can find our letter template here.
- Scientific evidence referred to in this blog is referenced in our 2005 report, Cephalopods and Decapod Crustaceans: their ability to experience pain and suffering. We do not condone animal testing, but do reference past scientific studies that prove decapod crustacean and cephalopod sentience, as this evidence already exists and so we feel should be used for the greater good of this species.