‘Eight arms pull you down’: octopus tree brings joy and unease to Cornwall | Cornwall

When Chris Chesterfield goes to collect his pots, he usually expects squid or spider crabs. But lately the Cornish fisherman has been ambushed – and outnumbered.

“You only have one or two arms that pull them up,” he says, “and they have eight that pull you down.”

Unprecedented numbers of octopuses have been reported in the waters off Cornwall in recent weeks, sparking celebrations and concerns about a “population explosion”.

“I’ve been fishing for 40 years and I’ve never seen so much,” said Cameron Henry of Mylor, who fishes with his two brothers.

He first became aware of the increase in late May when he began to pull out jars of lobster and squid that were noticeably empty after an eight-legged thief got to the bait or bounty first. “We didn’t have any crustaceans — just shellfish remains.”

Within days, Henry also caught the culprits, sometimes two or three in a jar: “You can imagine how much fun it is to get them out.”

The common octopus is a rare sight in British waters, despite the unusual number of sightings off the Cornish coast in recent weeks. Photo: Shannon Moran

For Chesterfield, who only operates out of Mevagissey in his 30ft trawler, the octopus overload poses an even greater logistical challenge.

The largest ones extend 4 feet (1.2 m) when hung over the deck — if you can get them still long enough, he says. “They just throw their tentacles over you and literally turn inside out. When they come out of the pot, they stick to the deck, to your legs – it’s endless.”

On a day in early June, Chesterfield claimed to have caught 260 kg of octopus, representing about 150 creatures. In a normal year, he expects to catch half a dozen.

“There are a lot of days when you pull 100kg, no problem at all,” he says. “Sometimes there are five or six in a jar.”

The Cornwall Wildlife Trust, which coordinates voluntary monitoring of local marine life, says the region’s “huge” numbers of octopus sightings, recorded not only by fishermen, but also divers and snorkelers, point to rare population growth.

Despite its name, the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is a rare sight in British waters, said Matt Slater, the trust’s marine conservation officer. “In an ordinary year we would expect only a few sightings and a few very enthusiastic divers – but now we get reports all the time, which is great.”

Like many octopuses, the species only lives for one or two years, but produces as many as 500,000 eggs, meaning favorable conditions can lead to huge fluctuations in populations.

According to records kept by the Marine Biological Association, the last such event along the south coast of England was more than 70 years ago, in the summer of 1948. A “plague” of octopuses was previously described in 1899.

“It got to the point where fishermen were really concerned about their livelihoods,” Slater says. “They found them in rock pools and even laid eggs there, which is not normal.”

A fishing boat in Mevagissey, Cornwall.
A fishing boat returns to port in Mevagissey, Cornwall. Photo: Tom Nicholson/Reuters

Henry says there were concerns that they would compete for the catch this summer: “We see so many it wouldn’t take long to fish out an area.”

But both he and Chesterfield say the sightings have dwindled in recent days, suggesting that this particular consortium may go further — to venture either around Land’s End or out to sea.

However, it is possible that octopus trees may become more common in the future. Like jellyfish, octopuses appear to be adapting faster than other species to the changing marine ecosystem. It has already been established that many species have expanded their range with warming waters, while a study published last year showed that octopuses may also be more resistant to changes in acidity than other species.

In any case, Slater is excited about the boom. As a member of the cephalopod group, he worked in an aquarium and says individual animals came to recognize his face and prefer him to other personnel.

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“An octopus infestation is something to celebrate for me,” he says. “I was hoping one day to see one of these big population explosions, and it feels like this could be a great year.”

Slater encourages the public to report any octopi sightings on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s website, but Henry and Chesterfield, on the front lines, fear being overrun.

Both say they quickly send their octopus catch “humanely” with a knife between the eyes to the creature’s central brain. So that’s “we didn’t let them crawl all over the boat like they did in previous years,” Chesterfield says. “It was long, hard days until we found out.”

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