'Octopus boom': Cornish fishermen report bumper sightings for first time in 70 years

·3 min read
One Jersey fisherman found a almighty catch earlier this month in the Channel Islands - Tony Heart / SWNS
One Jersey fisherman found a almighty catch earlier this month in the Channel Islands - Tony Heart / SWNS

Cornwall is experiencing a sudden boom in the population of the common octopus not seen for 70 years, with fishermen reporting dozens of the creatures a day.

The cephalopods are said to be consuming large amounts of lobster and cuttlefish, leaving fishermen hauling up the eight-legged sea creatures instead.

There is a strong European market for the muscular mollusc, especially in Spain and Portugal where it is a delicacy, but the sudden boom means British consumers may find octopus legs easier to come by than their usual Friday night favourites.

During the previous octopus explosions the ocean predators were seen as a plague, devouring fishermen’s traditional catches, said Matt Slater of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT).

Now, with healthy European demand for octopus, the fishermen were more relaxed.

"Octopuses are amazing, intelligent animals, they can get into the pots eat the crustaceans and leave," said Mr Slater. "But a lot of them fall asleep and then get caught so they are large numbers that are coming up in the pots."

Numbers are currently shooting up, however, with one fisherman reporting 150 in his pots and traps over just one day. - Shannon Moran
Numbers are currently shooting up, however, with one fisherman reporting 150 in his pots and traps over just one day. - Shannon Moran

The common octopus is usually rare in British waters, and tends to prefer warmer waters. The CWT receives reports of just two sightings a year on average for the mollusc more commonly associated with the Mediterranean.

Now they say one fisherman reported catching 150 in a single day, with sightings spread all along the south Cornish coast.

This would not be the first time octopus numbers have boomed in British waters. Records show similar events in 1899 and 1948, although the CWT is not yet labelling this a boom of similar proportions.

"There were octopuses being caught all up the south coast of England from Lands End to Brighton in 1948," said Mr Slater.

He said the trust was calling on the public to help count the molluscs to better determine if this was just a small spike or a full-blown population explosion. There are already reports of the creatures reaching Devon and Dorset.

Quite why the numbers have spiked remains a mystery. Mr Slater explained that octopuses usually lay an enormous number of eggs, between 100,000 and 500,000 at a time.

The mother octopus stays with her eggs, protecting them until they hatch and starving to death in the process. The larvae are then dispersed far and wide by oceanic currents.

However, the vast majority of the larvae are killed or eaten, meaning that the population remains stable.

"But occasionally, if conditions are good and stars align, there's plentiful food and lack of predation, you'll find you get a really successful survival rate. And I think that's what's happened here," said Mr Slater

The boom, though, is likely only to be short-lived.

The common octopus has a lifespan of just two years, and while there will be many more than usual laying their eggs in British waters, the survival rate is likely to fall back to normal.

Not everyone is likely to welcome a boom in octopus meals. The cephalopods are highly intelligent and considered the closest thing on earth to alien intelligence.

The last common ancestor of octopuses and all other intelligent species such as humans and dolphins was a worm-like creature 600 million years ago.

Octopuses have no clear distinction between what is brain and what isn’t, with neurons dispersed all across its body including its eight limbs.

They are known to be sophisticated problem solvers and some researchers even argue that they have displayed signs of humour.

"They are such amazing, alien creatures – one of the most intelligent animals in our oceans – and to witness a population explosion in our local waters would be incredible," Mr Slater said.

While this boom may prove short-lived, the underlying number of common octopuses may slowly creep up as British waters warm due to climate change.

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