Tilapia – the world’s top aquaculture fish

Writing about the Philippine bangus / milkfish these last few days got me thinking about the most popular farmed (aquaculture) fish in the world, the tilapia (Oreochromis, Sarotherodon).

Introduction, from Tilapia Production Report, Globefish.org:

Tilapia is both a genus of fishes in the Cichlidae family and the common name for nearly a hundred species of freshwater and some brackish water cichlid fishes belonging to the three genera Tilapia, Sarotherodon, and Oreochromis. 

Nile Tilapia Drawing (1898): WH Flower, Guide to the galleries of reptiles and fishes of the British Museum

Tilapia is often called “St. Peter’s fish” because according to the Book of Mathew (17:27) the fish which St. Peter caught was a tilapia. Also, the miracle of Jesus Christ in which it says a crowd of five thousand people were fully fed with five loafs of bread and two fishes (Mathew 14:15-21) may have also been a tilapia since this is the species most found in Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee) in historical Palestine. It is also called as Nile mouth brooder, or Nile perch.

Most important and abundant in production, capture and aquaculture, is the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus); followed by the Blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus); Mango tilapia (Sarotherodon galilaeus) and Sabaki tilapia (Oreochromis spilurus). These are native to Africa and the Middle East.  Blue and Mango tilapias are captured although in limited quantities while Sabaki tilapia is only cultured.

In the twenty-first century tilapia is dubbed as “wonder fish”.

Photo Source: www.globefish.org

Although tilapia is native to Africa and the Middle East, 98% of all farmed tilapia is grown outside its native habitat, by about 85 countries.

Tilapia was the 4th favorite seafood in the U.S. in 2010, moving up from its previous position as 5th favorite.  And because it is an affordable fish, worldwide demand continues to grow (www.Globefish.org).

According to a Seafood Watch report by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, tilapia are the most widely grown of any farmed fish. They are highly adaptable, easily cultured and

  • provides more protein than it takes to raise it (unlike farmed salmon or tuna)
  • are omnivorous and adapts eating habits to available food (they feed on phytoplankton or benthic algae but readily accept compound feed)
  • can tolerate low oxygen levels and a range of salinities
  • occupy a wide range of habitats (ponds, rivers, lakes, canals, irrigation channels)
  • have high reproductive capacities and readily establish self-reproducing populations

Photo Source: www.globefish.org

For many years, it has been available at Filipino supermarkets here in the U.S. and is a popular fish choice for markets that have a “free” fish frying service.

More and more, I see it offered as a fish option at restaurants, and it is usually always available as a fish choice in Filipino eateries.

From a sustainability standpoint, here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s stance on tilapia:

Your “Best Choice” is tilapia grown in the U.S. in environmentally friendly systems. “Avoid” farmed tilapia from China and Taiwan, where pollution and weak management are widespread problems.

Seafood
Rating Market Names Where Caught/How Caught
Tilapia Best Choice Izumidai U.S. – Farmed
Tilapia Avoid Izumidai China, Taiwan – Farmed
Tilapia Good Alternative Izumidai Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras – Farmed

More tilapia consumer notes  from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch:

Most tilapia consumed in the U.S. comes from China/Taiwan (frozen) or Central and South America (fresh). Less than 10 percent of tilapia consumed in the U.S. is farmed domestically.

A mild, white fish, tilapia is available year-round. It’s available whole, fresh, frozen, or even live in some Asian restaurants. It can also be found as fresh or frozen fillets. Tilapia is known as izumidai when prepared for sushi.

Summary

Tilapia is an important source of protein, especially in developing countries. Tilapia is a good candidate for farming, as it provides more protein than it takes to raise it. This is in contrast to some other fish raised in farms, such as salmon or tuna.

Tilapia is a hardy, freshwater fish that tolerates a wide range of water conditions. This means it’s easy to farm, but it also means it easily invades many habitats and threatens native fish populations.

In the U.S., most tilapia is farmed in closed inland systems that guard against escapes and pollution. However, in many other countries, tilapia is often farmed in open systems where escapes and pollution are bigger threats. However, tilapia farming methods vary widely within any given country.

U.S. farmed tilapia is the “Best Choice,” with tilapia from Central and South America as a “Good Alternative” to other imported product.

Photo Source: www.globefish.org

The bottom line for U.S. consumers of tilapia:  Look at country of origin packaging labels, and ask your fish dealer, or your restaurant, the country source of the tilapia that they sell and/or serve.

This way, you can at least know if you are consuming “Best Choice” — that is, U.S. farm raised tilapia — or “Good Alternative”, sustainably grown tilapias (again, from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras).

Although tilapia is one of the better farmed fish to eat — because of its mild flavor, affordability, and from a sustainable fish standpoint — it is still a fairly new fish in the world of modern aquaculture.

Under the right conditions, they can become an invasive species when deliberately or accidentally introduced in tropical climates.

In Florida, the blue tilapia (oreochromis aureus) is the most widespread of foreign fish species and a problem when tilapia populations compete with native fish.

Blue Tilapia – Photo credit: Michael Rupert Hayes

Tilapia is now the second most popular farmed fish in the Philippines (after the bangus).

A report from www.Globefish.org indicated that Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) was introduced to the Philippines in the mid-1960’s.  Excerpt from Globefish report on the Nile tilapia:

The culture of Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times as depicted on bas-relief from an Egyptian tomb dating over 4000 years ago, which showed the fish held in ornamental ponds.

While significant worldwide distribution of tilapias, primarily Oreochromis mossambicus, occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, distribution of the more desirable Nile tilapia occurred during the 1960s up to the 1980s.

Nile tilapia from Japan was introduced to Thailand in 1965, and from Thailand they were sent to the Philippines. Nile tilapia from Cote d’Ivoire was introduced to Brazil in 1971,and from Brazil they were sent to the United States in 1974. In 1978, Nile tilapia was introduced to China, which leads the world in tilapia production and consistently
produced more than half of the global production in every year from 1992 to 2008.

I recommend reading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and Globefish.org reports below, if you need more information to decide if tilapia is a fish you want to include in your diet.

Related Links:

Lolako.com’s country of origin for tilapia fish sold locally and Found! U.S. Farmed Tilapia

Tilapia-US-Farmed-Lions-MarketLolako.com’s Found! U.S.A. Farmed Tilapia

Seafood Watch – Seafood Report on Farmed Tilapia, by the Monterey Bay Aquarium

How to Raise Tilapia in the Backyard (http://www.pinoybisnes.com)

www.Globefish.org – Tilapia Production Report and Tilapia Archives