Tilapia—The Aquatic Chicken

Tilapia—The Aquatic Chicken

by Kevin Fitzsimmons

The tilapia-to-chicken analogy has been made many times and for good reason. Just as chicken is the base upon which much of poultry rearing has developed, tilapia has become the base for freshwater fish farming. Like chicken, tilapia is raised around the world and is consumed by virtually everyone except strict vegetarians, with no religious restrictions or cultural taboos. Around the world, tilapia is known by a number of traditional names: boulti in Arabic, chambo in Swahili, nil pla in Thai, luó fēi yú in Chinese, and St. Peter’s fish in Israel. Native to the Sea of Galilee, the tilapia there are widely believed to be the same species that Jesus fished for with his apostles and fed to the multitudes. Even today, farmed tilapia and unleavened bread are served to pilgrims visiting the revered sites in northern Israel and the Jordan Valley.

Tilapia have been farmed for millennia, with depictions of tilapia being held in cages and ponds on many of the oldest temples and palaces in Egypt. Today, Egyptian farmers produce more than a million tons of tilapia a year for Egyptian consumers. Modern tilapia farming began in the 1960s and ’70s with Peace Corps and other international aid agencies and charities promoting tilapia for use in economic development for poor farmers who could grow a few tilapia in small ponds to improve the family’s nutrition and perhaps generate some extra income.

Returning to our chicken analogy, it was the breeders in the 1980s and ’90s who used traditional selective breeding techniques to breed faster-growing fish with larger fillets, who brought tilapia onto the dinner plates of consumers around the world. Again, like chickens, tilapia have relatively large eggs and as mouth brooders, the mother provides a large amount of parental protection for the young. This made the job of developing pedigreed stocks and rapid development of improved strains much easier for the breeders. Tilapia are now the most domesticated of any aquatic animal, with multiple strains and several skin colors, including black, silver, blue, red and pink.

NASA recognized tilapia for its hardiness, nutritional value, and ease of farming when it selected it for use in many of its early trials for closed ecological life-support systems—“farming in space” in normal speak. In fact, tilapia have been grown on both space shuttle and space station missions.

Paired with potatoes for carbohydrates, tilapia has been promoted as an efficient source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Tilapia can also be fed a variety of easily produced plant-based feeds. Fish farmers, like other farmers, understand that good nutrition, proper exercise and a clean environment are the keys to producing healthy, fast-growing animals that provide a nutrient-rich source of food for consumers without resorting to the use of drugs or antibiotics.

Tilapia farms have proliferated around the world as consumers, rich and poor, appreciate the mild flavor and fine-textured, flaky flesh. Again, referring to our chicken analogy, tilapia appeals to a diverse audience. It can be found in traditional street fare and fast-food chains, as well as at the best sushi restaurants alongside tuna and eel, and in white-tablecloth restaurants, stuffed with lobster meat and shrimp or served meunier-style. Tilapia has also become a favorite of cruise ships as it can be served 24 hours a day at the lido buffet or prepared for the captain’s black-tie-and-gown dinner. It’s the perfect white fish to be used in a variety of recipes—the options are endless.

In much of the world where fish is the primary source of animal protein, tilapia farming has exploded as the most efficient source of fish, again very similar to chicken’s role as the main source of poultry. Most of the world’s aid agencies and charities still promote tilapia as one of the most efficient and environmentally sustainable sources of high-quality protein for both rural and urban populations.

Bangladesh’s production of tilapia exploded from 12,000 tons a year in 2008 to 350,000 tons in 2017. Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam produce similar amounts of tilapia, mostly for domestic consumption. China and Indonesia are important exporters of tilapia, but with production of well over a million tons a year each, their biggest markets are domestic.

On a global basis, tilapia production continues to grow as consumption of the fish in all its various forms and recipes continues to expand. Tilapia prices have been remarkably stable for many years, especially when compared to shrimp and salmon. Experts attribute this to the wide variety of production systems used to rear the fish (again like chickens) and the wide global distribution of farms.

Just like chicken, tilapia can be allowed to roam around freely eating whatever it chooses, or grown in cages with some added feed, protected from predators. Or in the case of Regal Springs Tilapia, responsibly raised in a controlled environment with clean water, plant-based food and a sophisticated hatchery system that maximize the growth and health of the fish.

Many of the major food companies of the world, including Regal Springs, invest in tilapia becoming an essential source of healthy protein. Companies have been working hard to build hatcheries, feed mills, farms and processing plants, as well as figuring out how to make them into a variety of recipes and meal delivery kits. The way they figure it, Cleopatra, Jesus, the Peace Corps and about 4 billion Asian consumers knew a good thing when they ate it.

 

Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons is a professor and extension specialist of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, where his research and extension work is focused on tilapia aquaculture. He is the past president of the U.S. Aquaculture Society and World Aquaculture Society.

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