- Tilapia: Aquatic Chicken

Tilapia - Aquatic Chicken

The following article has been reprinted from American Small Farm, February, 1997 issue.

  These warm water fish can be grown in small scale indoor tanks, using recirculating water. Tilapia fillets sell for $7 per pound at some restaurants.

  Aquaculture is the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States. Fish farming may be something that will fit into your small farm business.

 Although the farming of aquatic plants and animals was practiced prior to 2,000 BC in China, it was not until the early 1870's that aquaculture began taking roots in the United States. Trout farming is considered the oldest farming industry in the United States and began as a way to replenish wild stock in streams and lakes.

  In recent years, consumer demand for both seafood and freshwater products continues to increase. Per capita consumption has increased over 25 percent in the past six years.

  Much of the aquaculture expansion is driven by an increased demand for fisheries' products and reduced yields from traditional fisheries.

  Within 15 years, fish farming and sea ranching could provide nearly 40 percent of all fish for the human diet and more than half of the value of the global fish catch, says a report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

  The CGIAR system performs research to promote sustainable agriculture and food security in developing countries. The CGIAR is cosponsored by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

  "The next great leap in producing food will come from domesticated and genetically improved varieties of fish and other seafood," says Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development, who is also chairman of CGIAR.

  A new wave of fish farmers is already raising tilapia fish, the aquatic chicken, that is native to Africa but is now being farmed in more than 85 countries. These countries include Asia, Latin America, Africa and even in the United States. Sometimes the fish are grown by young former urban professionals making their first tries at farming of any kind, or by Asian rice farmers trying fish farming for the first time.

  Fish is the fifth most important agricultural commodity and accounts for 7.5 percent of total world food production. More than 1 billion people in developing countries depend upon fish as the primary source of animal protein. Fish provides 28 percent of total animal protein in Asia; 21 percent in Africa; 8 percent in Latin America; 7 percent in North America; and 10 percent in Western Europe.

  Global fish catches increased fivefold between 1950 and 1989 to some 100 million tons, but overall production has stagnated since then as fisheries have exhausted new sources of supply. The United Nations estimates that an additional 16 million tons would be needed to maintain consumption at current levels in the year 2010, assuming present population growth.

  "The only way to meet increasing demand is to boost output by raising fish just as farmers produce livestock, poultry and plants, in addition to better managing existing wild fish resources," says Serageldin. "On the land we have learned to produce food by cultivation. But in the sea we will still act as hunters and gatherers. We still catch fish like we used to hunt down buffaloes on the Great Plains of the United States, with similar results."

  The Nile tilapia, a freshwater fish from Africa, is very productive and thrives on agricultural wastes, making it inexpensive to grow. It has been dubbed "the aquatic chicken", because it can be grown in a variety of situations from backyards to intensive "battery" farms. It has been introduced widely to Latin America and Asia.

  Its short generation interval, from four to six months in a breeding program, makes tilapia an excellent model for applied genetic improvement methods for fish. The best way of doing this in tropical fish is by selective breeding, breeding from the "best" individuals, a process that in one form or another has accounted for most of the improvements made in domesticated plants and animals in the past.

  "The tilapia has been one of the first successful examples of selective breeding of tropical food fish," says Meryl Williams, Director General of the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), based in Manila, Philippines.

  "Even so, we are just at the beginning. Fish breeding is 50 years behind livestock and 100 years behind plant breeding, but it shows the same great potential," Williams remarks. Tilapia is also finding more and more of a market acceptance in the developed world, where it is starting to replace fish such as cod because of collapsed wild stocks.

  Presently farmed breeds of Nile tilapia reach a harvest size of 800 grams (1.75 pounds) after a growth period of five to six months, permitting about two harvest per year. In on-farm trials, a new strain developed by ICLARM and partners grew on the average 60 percent faster than present farm breeds, and their survival rate was almost fifty percent better. With this growth rate, three crops per year are possible.

  Production of tilapia in the United States has continued to grow, reaching about nine million pounds (live-weight) in 1992, according to the American Tilapia Growers Association. Tilapia has been grown commercially in Africa and Asia for local consumption. In 1991, more than nine million pounds of tilapia were imported into the United States through Southern California.

  Domestic tilapia production reached an estimated 12.5 million pounds (live-weight) in 1993, up approximately 40 percent from 1992. Tilapia imports in 1993 totaled 33 million pounds (live-weight) valued at $18 million.

  More imported tilapia production is farm-raised. Whole products accounted for 89 percent of the 1993 volume, mostly from Taiwan. Costa Rica and Columbia are the primary suppliers in the fresh-fillet market, and the majority of frozen fillet imports are from Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

  Since tilapia culture requires warm water, outdoor production in the United States is limited to those states that are climactically suitable. In other areas, tilapia production takes place indoors through tank systems. By expanding the uses of indoor systems, tilapia production could expand in areas closer to major markets. An advantage to U.S. growers would be the provision of fresh and live tilapia in contrast to frozen imports.

  Through the use of closed recirculation systems and the use of geothermal or other low-cost heat sources, tilapia production has expanded to all regions of the country. While many growers have concentrated on the live-fish market to avoid direct competition with foreign competitors, a number of growers produce processed tilapia products and compete in the fresh or frozen-fillet market. A warmer climate and low wage rates allows some countries to market whole fish at less than 60 cents a pound, which makes it difficult for U.S. producers to compete.

  Tilapia are warm water fish. In the United States this means that they have to be grown indoors for at least part of the year, except for a very few locations. If water is heated for production, the system must recirculate the water in order to be economical. Because many tilapia producers use some degree of water recirculation, tilapia, more than other species, will benefit from recent advances in water recirculating technologies.