New Mexico Tilapia Culture

“Aquaculture, or fish farming, is a fast-growing industry in the U.S. This growth is due to several interrelated factors. First, commercial fishing is rapidly depleting wild stocks in the oceans. Second, edible fish and seafood per capita consumption has risen from 12.8 lb in 1980 to 15.9 lb in 1989, and is expected to reach 20 lb in 2000 (although current trends indicate a leveling between 16 and 17 lb). Finally, there was an estimated fish and shellfish trade deficit of $4.9 billion in 1990. The combination of these three factors has led to increased demand for fish and seafood products that cannot be met by the greatly depleted wild catch fisheries. Aquaculture, therefore, is growing to fill the market void created by the increased demand and wild stock depletion.

New Mexico has unique environmental and biological resources that could be used to develop a viable aquaculture industry in the state. Approximately 15 billion acre-feet of saline water (2 ppt and greater salinity) are available for use in New Mexico. Saline water resources cannot be used for traditional agriculture or for drinking water, but can be used for aqua-culture. The wide array of climatic conditions found throughout the state can support a diversified and strong aquaculture industry.”

IV. Non-Native Non-Indigenous Species with Aquaculture Potential in New Mexico

“New Mexico has a large number of fish species with aquaculture potential. There also are several non-native non-indigenous, or exotic, aquaculture species with proven potential that could be raised in New Mexico. These species include tilapia, the Chinese carps, and penaeid shrimp. This section will discuss, in general terms, the culture methods and markets for these exotic species.

It is important to note that culture of exotic species in New Mexico is controlled by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. An “Application for Importation of Exotic Species” must be made to and accepted by the Department prior to importing or beginning culture of any non-native non-indigenous species.

Tilapia are similar in appearance to bluegill. Tilapia were imported from Africa to many parts of the world. Production of tilapia is centered in the southern U.S., the Caribbean, and Central America. In the U.S., tilapia also are cultured in colder climates using indoor recirculating systems or geothermal spring water.

Tilapia are a warmwater fish. They are disease resistant, tolerant of poor water quality, and grow well in most aquaculture systems. Culture methods ranging from open ponds to cages to water recirculating systems have been used to rear tilapia successfully. Tilapia also have been cultured successfully in saline water.

Tilapia will reproduce in most aquaculture systems. Reproduction is both a benefit and a hinderance to production of this species. It is a benefit because fingerling production is simplified. It is a hinderance because tilapia spawn frequently. The high spawning frequency slows growth and the increased fish mass due to the fry in the culture unit leads to stunting in the population.

Markets for tilapia are growing worldwide. U.S. tilapia production in 1991 was approximately 9 million pounds and has increased steadily since that time. Producer markets are available in niche markets or, if production is large enough, in larger outlets.”

Source: New Mexico Aquaculture, Michael B. Sloane, Extension Aquaculturist

Regulations and Permits

Each state has different requirements for constructing and operating fish culture facilities. Permits for effluent discharge, water rights, building, propagation of game fish, and health must be obtained from the controlling state agencies. Depending on your facility and operational plans, additional permits may be necessary. In New Mexico, for example, it is illegal to import and rear live tilapia. An “Applications for Importation of Exotic Species” may be made to the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission to rear species prohibited in the state.


  1. I want to start a small aquaponics garden in my back yard with no more than 50 blue tilapia in a 270 gallon tank. What type of permit do I need and where do I get one?

    • Tilapia regulations in New Mexico have changed since the publishing of this article. Some varieties are permitted in the state now.

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