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Is Eating Tilapia Healthy?

With the increasing popularity of tilapia as a food fish, particularly in the United States, there has been a parallel spike in news articles raising concerns about the health risks of tilapia. Media headlines scream out all sorts of dire consequences that may result from eating farmed tilapia – tilapia is worse than bacon, tilapia are raised in feces-laden water, tilapia may cause cancer, and so on. Given that tilapia is the second most farmed fish globally (after carp) and has been consumed by millions around the world, it’s somewhat disingenuous to categorize tilapia as a harmful food choice.According to the United Nations, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As the world’s population increases, there is great need to embrace ecological, human, and economic practices that will sustain our planet and its citizens.

In fact, tilapia is a good source of protein and other nutrients. The average 4-ounce tilapia serving contains 1 gram of saturated fat, 29 grams of protein, and 200 mg of omega-3. Although, the omega-3 content is not as rich as found in fatty fish, such as salmon or herring, it is similar to the amounts found in scallops, lobster, cod, haddock, mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, orange roughy, and shrimp. Tilapia provides more omega-3 than is found in other meats, including chicken, pork, and beef.

Source: Why Farmed Fish Is Safe - WorldFish
Source: Why Farmed Fish Is Safe – WorldFish

Seafood Watch gives consumers guidance on selecting both wild caught and farmed sustainable seafood sources. The tilapia grown in recirculating systems in the U.S. and Canada are cited as the best source for high quality fish. Other best choices include blue tilapia grown in raceways in Peru and Nile tilapia grown in ponds in Ecuador. Good alternatives include tilapia (blue, Mozambique, and Nile tilapia) that is grown in ponds and net pens in China, Taiwan, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Wild caught fisheries cannot keep up the demand for seafood. The global community needs to look at sustainable aquafarming to help feed the increasing world population. While advisory programs like Seafood Watch help consumers select seafood, certification programs like those provided by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) ensure that seafood produced by the aquaculture industry follows responsible and sustainable culturing practices. Many tilapia farms are now meeting certification standards.

Because farmed tilapia are usually fed a grain-based diet, they are less dependent on fishmeal, so their production has minimal impacts on wild fish stocks. Many major U.S. retailers, including Sam’s Club, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods, sell tilapia (and other seafood) that meet quality certification.

Tilapia is a nutritious food source that can be grown in a sustainable manner. Its mild flavor and white flesh make it a versatile fish that can be broiled, grilled, blackened, or pan-fried. These are some of the reasons to include tilapia as part of a healthy diet.


Backyard Aquaponics – Raising Homegrown Food

Tilapia has a reputation of being an ideal fish for aquaponics. These fish are tolerant of varying environmental conditions, grow fast, and can be fed a variety of foods, including algae, duckweed, and commercially available food pellets.

To get some first-hand experience raising tilapia, I decided to set up a backyard aquaponics system. After researching different small-scale systems, it looked like a system based on an IBC (International Bulk Container) tote would be an inexpensive and practical solution. IBC totes are industrial containers that are used to transport or store liquid products.

After a quick Internet search, I located a nearby source and was able to purchase a 275-gallon IBC tote for $125. The tote was food grade and had previously been used to transport sunflower oil. To prepare the vegetable grow bed container and fish tank, I followed the instructions given in The IBC of Aquaponics and the associated video (Note: There are many other instructions available online, so you may choose a plan that works for you).

Tilapia fingerlings purchased from hatchery
Tilapia fingerlings purchased from hatchery
Grow bed and fish tank constructed from IBC
Grow bed and fish tank constructed from IBC

Because I am located in a temperate climate area (Rhode Island), I decided it might be advantageous to put my aquaponics system within a simple greenhouse that I had previously built. The greenhouse would help maintain temperatures in a more favorable range for the warm water loving tilapia. The greenhouse was constructed following the instructions for a Modular Moveable Greenhouse described by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman, organic farmers from Maine. I had read some of their books to learn more about the techniques they use to raise vegetables in mid-coast Maine in unheated greenhouses even throughout the winter.

After constructing the aquaponics system, it was time to stock the tank with tilapia fingerlings. I purchased blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus) fingerlings from a supplier (Lakeway Tilapia) and they were shipped overnight and arrived in great condition. I selected blue tilapia because they are more cold tolerant than other tilapia and can survive temperatures down to 48 degrees F (9 degrees C). I had been growing some duckweed, but the supply was not enough and it was quickly consumed by the fish. To complete grow out of the fish I used Purina AquaMax feed pellets. The pellets are available in a variety of sizes to match each growth stage.

Fish feeding in the IBC tank
Fish feeding in the IBC tank

After the fish were acclimated to the tank, vegetable seedlings (leaf lettuce, pak choi, watercress) were added to the grow bed. The water was circulated by a pump from the fish tank up to the grow bed where the vegetables absorbed the nitrates produced from the fish waste.

Vegetables in the grow bed
Vegetables in the grow bed

Once the recirculating system is set up there is minimal maintenance required to keep it functioning. It’s basically make sure the pump is running, feed the fish daily, occasionally clean the fish tank, and, when ready, harvest the fish and vegetables.

Harvesting blue tilapia
Harvesting blue tilapia

Author: John Hacunda

Country Focus: Egypt

Egypt is the second largest producer of tilapia worldwide. In 2010, an estimated 550,000 metric tons (MT) were produced. Aquaculture plays an important role in Egyptian seafood production. The FAO indicates that aquaculture supplies almost 65 percent of the total fish production of the country with over 99 percent produced from privately owned farms. Aquaculture in Egypt accounts for $1.3 billion in market value, which is the highest value in Africa.

Art items dating from the beginning of recorded history contain evidence of the importance of tilapia in Egypt. The Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) is endemic to the area and was grown in closed ponds along the Nile river.

Central Garden Pool in the Garden of Nebamun’s Tomb Painting, British Museum, late 18th Dynasty, circa 1350 BCE (Photo in public domain)

Modern aquaculture production in Egypt began in the 1930s. In 1961, the government built a semi-intensive commercial farm of 120 hectares of earthen ponds. The farm raised Nile tilapia, common carp and flathead grey mullet.

Further government investment during the 1970s and 1980s lead to the development of four large hatcheries, six fish farms and five fry collection stations. This increased aquaculture production from 17,000 MT to 45,000 MT. By 1984 the first trials of tilapia cage culture began in the Nile River.

Nile tilapia

Aquaculture production has increased dramatically in recent years. Three groups comprise more than 95% of aquaculture production and their percentage contributions to total production are tilapias (75.54%), mullet (12.74%) and carps (6.59%). Among the tilapia group, Nile tilapia and blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus) are cultured. While semi-intensive fish culture in earthen ponds is most important, there is also increased focus on using intensive systems in both tanks and cages.

Recent trends show the increased importance of aquaculture in helping Egypt address food needs. Aquaculture development in Egypt faces some contraints, such as fish feed availability, adequate tilapia seed stock, and limited water resources. Despite these constraints, market demand is strong, and many of the limitations can be overcome with adequate financing, upgrading of production facilities, land/water resource management, and continued development of trained workers.


Aquaculture, Aquaponics & Tilapia Training

A list of some training courses:

Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand

University of St Andrews, Scotland – Online Course, Sustainable Aquaculture

Aquaculture Innovation, South Africa
4-day Aquaculture System Management Course, March 22-24, 2017
9-day Practical Fish Farmer Course, February 14-22, 2017
2-day Commercial Aquaponics Course, February 7-8, 2017 & March 20-21, 2017

Nelson-Pade, Montello, Wisconsin, USA
Aquaponics Master Class, Montello, WI
March 9-11, 2017
April, 27-29, 2017
June 15-17, 2017
August 17-19, 2017
November 9-11, 2017

The Aquaponic Farming Course

At Green Acre Aquaponics – Brooksville, FL

January 27-29, 2017
March 17-19, 2017
April 28-30, 2017
October 20-22, 2017
December  8-10, 2017

At Ouroboros Farms – Half Moon Bay, CA

February 17-19, 2017
April 21-23, 2017
June 9-11, 2017
September 15-17, 2017

University of the Virgin Islands
Aquaponics Workshop
March 8-10, 2017
May 17-19, 2017

Friendly Aquaponics, Inc.
Honoka’a, Hawaii
Commercial Solar Greenhouse Aquaponics Training

Morning Star Fishermen
Dade City, Florida
Aquaponics Seminar Workshops and Courses

Living Mandala
Closed-Loop Aquaponics: The Complete Course
March 9-12, 2017
Sacramento, California

Growing Power
Aquaponics Courses

From the Ground Up! Two-day Workshop Training

  • February 11-12, 2017
  • March 11-12, 2017
  • April 8-9, 2017
  • May 6-7, 2017
  • June 17-18, 2017

Aquaponics Three-day Training

  • February 10-12, 2017
  • March 10-12, 2017
  • April 7-9, 2017
  • May 5-7, 2017
  • June 16-18, 2017

Commercial Urban Agriculture Business Training Course

  • February 10-12, 2017
  • March 10-12, 2017
  • April 7-9, 2017
  • May 5-7, 2017
  • June 16-18, 2017