What the Heck is Tilapia?

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This is one of my favorite questions that we’ve received at www.passionfish.org. The newly popular finfish is showing up in grocery seafood cases across the country and we all keep hearing that tilapia is nearly as revolutionary sliced bread. But, in fact, it’s had a long, rich history.
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Tilapia is the common name of a group of fish called cichlids that are native to Africa, but are now one of the world’s greatest aquaculture (fish and shellfish farming) success stories. Since tilapia were first grown in ponds in Arizona in the early 1960s, they have spread to fresh-water aquaculture farms in 85 countries that now produce more than 800,000 tons a year, surpassed only by the production of farmed carp. One species of tilapia, the Nile perch, was the first fish ever reared in aquafarms by Egyptians over 3,000 years ago and they appear in some tomb paintings.
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These relatively small fish, similar to sunfish or crappie, grow quickly and live on diets of ecologically friendly and inexpensive vegetable-based foods. The farms are enclosed ponds, most with recirculating water systems that have very little impact on the surrounding environment. Wild tilapia still inhabit rivers and lakes in Africa, and are taken for food in small artisanal (local or community-based) fisheries and major commercial fisheries on Lake Victoria and other large African lakes.
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Some species of tilapia can easily be identified by color. The most common, from the Nile river, is Oreochromis niloticus which are bright emerald green. Oreochromis honorum is black and white, Oreochromis mossambica has reddish coloring, Oreochromis aureus is white or silver. The fish called red tilapia is a mix of species, but always carries the red gene from Oreochromis mossambica. Tilapia are a riot of diversity, though, and there are dozens of other close relatives with many colors.
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All tilapia are nest builders and the parents guard their fertilized eggs by patrolling areas around the nest and later taking their young into their mouths. They are omnivores, feeding on small fish, algae, and bits of anything else organic that is in the water, growing to weights from six ounces to six pounds, and lengths from four to 18 inches, depending upon the species and habitat. Most tilapia that reach market from farms weigh between one and one-and-a-half pounds.
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Legend has it that the fish Christ multiplied one-thousand-fold to feed the masses was tilapia, and so it is sometimes known as St. Peter’s fish. And, now, in the US, tilapia has become the fifth most popular fish to eat, after shrimp, canned tuna, salmon and pollock.
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Ready to try it? Check out the easy-to-prepare “Tilapia Vera Cruz” contributed by Chef Gregory Fedderson: www.passionfish.org
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Please stay tuned to our blog for more information about seafood that’s healthy for you and for the ocean. We have a beautiful cookbook in development to help answer your questions while providing easy-to-prepare recipes for you and your family. Visit us at www.passionfish.org/support.htm
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