Of Mollusks and Monk Seals
Tuesday, 23 Aug, 2022
Sea Shepherd’s latest campaign to protect one of the most endangered marine mammals in the Mediterranean Sea – the Monk Seal – also aims to protect a sea creature we have rarely chronicled in our 45-year history of ocean conservation: the octopus.
In the narrative of our work defending marine ecosystems, we often talk about a multitude of animals. For some, we narrate their rescue; for others, only the beauty of a fleeting encounter while sailing. We have always considered them "our clients", as the focus of Sea Shepherd's work is always aimed at conserving a particular species or their environment. However, one of the protagonists is not a fish, a cetacean, or a turtle, but a mollusk with eight arms, three hearts, and nine brains.
We know so much and so little at the same time about this animal. The Octopus vulgaris is the most common species in the Mediterranean Sea, an intelligent invertebrate capable of solving complex problems, adapting to any situation, and remembering the shapes of objects and people years later. Octopus' genetic makeup carries the same type of gene implicated in human learning and cognitive development. On top of that, each specimen shows its own personality and even changes color while dreaming.
Unfortunately, if we search for "octopus" on the Internet, what we find almost exclusively is an endless list of recipes or tips on how to catch it. Although learning more about them may change our perception, the species continues to be under unprecedented fishing pressure.
What Do We Know About Octopuses?
Everything we know about octopuses suggests that they deserve nothing but our respect and interest. They are often confused with polyps, which are actually corals and jellyfish. The octopus has two hearts that pump its blood into the gills, while the third allows for blood circulation throughout the body. Because of the copper they use to capture oxygen—not iron, as we do—their blood is actually blue.
The octopus has a brain for each arm (not tentacles!), plus a central one in charge of controlling the independent functioning of each arm: it may use them for grasping objects as if they were tools, the only invertebrate with this unique skill.
Another distict feature of the octopus is the dedication the female puts into caring for her eggs, tirelessly blowing oxygen-rich water on them as they develope, and starving to death after giving everything to her offspring. Eventually, she will die at two and a half years of age at the latest. This is her legacy.
Why We Need to Protect the Octopuses to Protect the Monk Seals
Needless to say, like almost every other species in our sea hunted for food, the octopus’ population is threatened by the same insatiable human "appetite” that is plundering the ocean.
According to te data, nearly 3,000 tons of octopuses are caught in Italy every year. If an adult specimen can weigh an average of five kilograms, then hundreds of thousands are officially snatched from the sea. Taking into account recreational fishing and poaching, the real number is unimaginable.
Because of the biology of this species, monitoring its population is challenging. However, data indicate that numbers are not only decreasing locally but generally everywhere, to the point that it falls into the category of an overexploited species.
One of the few forms of protection implemented to prevent the decline of octopus populations, besides Marine Protected Areas, is the "biological rest period" during summer. In this period, which varies from region to region, catching even a single specimen is forbidden.
The Monachus Defense Campaign
For Sea Shepherd, that is not enough. This is where the most endangered marine mammal in the Mediterranean comes in: the monk seal.
There is a very close link between this species and the octopus, therefore helping the monk seal means helping octopuses too.
Monk seals were still widespread in Italian waters until the middle of the last century. Hunted until they almost became extinct, only about 700 Mediterranean monk seals now remain. However, sightings and research seem to indicate a recolonization of a place that was once their home: our coasts. From those very few groups settled in the west, between Greece and Turkey, some specimens are attempting to return to where they once thrived.
What has prevented it so far is the lack of coastal habitats where they can rest and reproduce, and -- most of all -- food. And what is the staple diet of monk seals? That's right, octopuses! If you were a monk seal, about half of your diet would be octopus.
As part of the recently launched Monk Seal Defense Campaign, Sea Shepherd Italy intends to operate in the most suitable habitats for this protected species.
Read about the largest confiscation of illegal fishing gear in the Mediterranean Sea: "Protecting octopuses so seals will return to Italy"