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October 04, 2013

“Super Powers” Alone Can’t Save Octopus

Shedd Aquarium Giant Pacific Octopus_blog

What has nine brains and three hearts? The giant Pacific octopus, the largest species of octopus in the world! That’s right, these eight-legged hermitlike creatures may prefer creepy crevices and shadowy shoals along the Pacific coast from Southern California to Alaska, but they’re highly evolved and intelligent cephalopods. Cephalopod literally means “head-foot,” an appropriate name for a creature whose body consists of a soft, billowy head surrounded by eight curling arms.

The giant Pacific octopus has no shortage of cool features. To start, these superhero-like maritime marvels are truly big—measuring 16 feet from arm tip to arm tip and weighing between 50 and 90 pounds. They’re also capable of incredible stunts that only Catwoman or Batman could rival. Bearing 280 free-moving suckers on each arm, giant Pacific octopuses can slither through rocky underwater caverns and swoop through dangling kelp. Despite their reputation for being reclusive, they can jet in and out of hiding in a flash with one pulse of the mantle. Still not impressed? They can instantaneously change skin color and texture just by constricting muscles around specialized pigment cells. Talk about the art of disguise.

You’re not likely to see one of these masterful magicians on a snorkel or dive trip. So a visit to Shedd’s Oceans gallery is your best chance to see the probing tentacles of a giant Pacific octopus at work.

And while you ponder comparative dexterity and intellect and the taxonomic divide between octopuses and people, consider this: You probably have a closer connection to these majestic creatures than you think. If you eat lobster, crab, shrimp, or fish, you have a role to play in their health and survival.

Although typically not targeted for consumption, giant Pacific octopuses are at risk to the side effects of some fishing practices. Pot and trap fishing, which are common ways of catching Pacific cod, work by setting underwater pots baited with fish. While this is an effective way to catch bottom-dwelling fishes like Pacific cod, or crawling crustaceans like lobsters and crabs, it’s also an easy way to lure in a giant Pacific octopus. More often than not, the octopuses are thrown back as discards. Many times they are injured or dying.

Luckily, the giant Pacific octopus is not known to be threatened; but little is known about population changes over time. We do know that the giant octopuses were fished for food and halibut bait for centuries on the west coast of Canada and Alaska, however our understanding of the impact of past and ongoing fishing is foggy at best. That’s why scientists are using their own smarts to study giant Pacific octopuses.

You can help protect animals like our own Opal by purchasing seafood that is caught using sustainable fishing practices. If you like Pacific cod, look for deep-water, long-line-caught fish instead of those caught by a pot or trap. It’s an easy way to enjoy delicious seafood while keeping the great Pacific octopus out of harm’s way!

Reid Bogert, Great Lakes sustainability team

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Unfortunately, long line fishing is deadly to endangered sea turtles like leatherbacks.

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