Tilapia: Miracle Fish (Part 1)

Published on: 4/25/2018
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In the space of 25 years, global farmed tilapia production has risen from obscurity to become one of the most important farmed fish species from less than 398,000 tonnes in 1991 to a predicted global production of 6.4 million metric tonnes (MMT) in 2017. Projections indicate an expected growth of 2.6 percent in 2018 to 6.5 MMT, significantly lower than the average growth rate of 12 percent over the period from 2002 to 2012.

Most of the global production of tilapia is produced in freshwater pond systems and consumed in producing countries contributing to food security in the developing world where the sector is concentrated. China is the leading producer country followed by Egypt and Indonesia. Production estimates in 2017 have been pegged at 1.7 MMT for China, almost 900,000 metric tonnes (MT) for Egypt and 800,000 MT for Indonesia.

Surprisingly, less than seven percent of global tilapia production is internationally traded, the majority of which supplies growing markets in the United States and more recently Africa. Nevertheless, leading industry experts in Norway are optimistic and see tilapia fillets more broadly making inroads into global whitefish markets in developed countries at competitive prices. Whitefish is a market-oriented term categorising white fleshed, non-oily fish where fat reserves are typically in the liver and not in the flesh and guts. Core wild captured whitefish include cod, Pollack, hake, hoki and saithe species and core farmed whitefish include tilapia, pangasius, catfish, cobia and meagre.

Tilapia are the most widely cultivated of all species with more than 120 countries reporting some commercial activity. In addition, tilapia are cultivated in the highest number of production environments from rice paddies and simple fertilized earth ponds to cages in lakes, aquaponics systems, biofloc technology (BFT) tanks and Recirculation Aquaculture Systems (RAS) and are considered easy to cultivate.

The progressive expansion of tilapia aquaculture globally can be divided into three phases each marked by technological advances driven by research since the 1980’s.

The initial phase (1981-1990) driven by moderately successful hybridisation of parent gene lines creating faster growing hybrids, often red in colour which produced fewer male fish, improved body colour and improved growth rates. Production grew at an annual average growth rate of 14 percent during the initial phase from a lower base.

The early growth phase (1991-2000) saw annual production growth of 13.1 percent largely attributed to the dissemination of all-male sex reversal technology of tilapias using androgens to produce close to all-male populations (+95%). Traditional extensive culture methods were replaced with semi-intensive and intensive production systems particularly in Central and South American operations requiring more water exchange, feeding driven by nutritional research and improved quality control. Better management and the ability to supply fresh products to nearby major US cities were advantages that contributed to adoption of these systems in many countries. Such intensive production practices increased tilapia supply in this early growth period of 1991–2000 from 0.4 MMT to 1.19 MMT.

The rapid growth phase (2001-2012) resulting in annual average production growth of 12 percent from a higher base driven by the dissemination of improved gene lines across much of Asia and Central and South America, and to a lesser extent in Africa. The Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) program on Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) lead by the WorldFish Center in Malaysia enabled the rapid scale up of global production. GIFT tilapia accounted for more than half of the production in Asia in 2012. The overall contribution of GIFT and GIFT-derived strains is regarded as the single most significant technological advancement in the global tilapia farming industry.

The period since 2013 is marked by falling average annual growth to 8.1 percent year on year, and a further slowing to 2.6 percent from 2017 to 2018. The major reason stems from an oversupply and market maturity of non-exportable second grade quality pond farmed tilapia in China and Egypt the world’s first and second largest producers. Annual tilapia production growth has however been highly unequal displaying huge untapped local production potential in Africa (excluding Egypt) and the Middle East for supply into local and less regulated markets.

The medium-longer term prognosis given global finfish supply-demand shortfalls of 50 MMT by 2030 according the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013 is however telling. These positive market factors are likely to ensure that prices on international markets remain firm over the medium term and gradually increase over the longer term driven by the widening global whitefish supply-demand gap. While emerging and less regulated markets in Africa and the Middle East present ideal opportunities, an almost unlimited market, for tilapia aquaculture particularly for affordable fresh whole fish which commands a premium over frozen product now largely imported into local markets from Asian producers.


Miracle fish?

Known as tilapia today, one of, or both the Jordan Saint Peter’s fish (Oreochromis aureus) and/or the Galilee St. Peter’s fish (Sarotherodon galilaeus) were recorded in all four of the Gospels in the narrative of the “miracle of the five loaves and two fish”. Apart from the biblical narrative, there is substantial reason to believe that the peculiar traits of tilapias lend themselves well to the title ‘miracle fish’.

Filter-feeding Oreochromis tilapia species are considered the perfect core whitefish, “every-mans fish”, “the aquatic chicken” and “not unlike the culinary versatility of chicken,” according to Professor Kevin Fitzsimmons, former president of the American Tilapia Association. They capably convert plant proteins, diatoms, algae, heterotrophic plankton (biofloc), bacteria, zooplankton and low trophic level organisms into a valuable, succulent and mild tasting fish enjoyed universally. Indeed, it has been argued that tilapia are perhaps the only truly herbivorous fishes since they possess not only a highly efficient digestive system (3.5 times the length of the fish) but also a highly specialised one, capable of producing pH values < 1 facilitating the digestion of highly refractory plant carbohydrate compounds.

Figure 1: Global Tilapia production output from 1991 to 2019 (forcasted for 1027, 2018, 2019) and percentage year on year annual production growth

FishBase has assigned a Trophic Level of 2.0 ± 0.0 to tilapia somewhat lower than the 3.1 ± 0.46 trophic niche ranking of pangasius the nearest competing farmed whitefish species in terms of international volume trade and market niche (Figure 2). Shrimp were ranked first, crabs ninth and clams tenth which were excluded from Figure 2.

Under feedlot cage and tank farmed conditions tilapia do equally well on balanced rations made up entirely of terrestrial plant proteins and grains free of any animal proteins. As such, farmed tilapia spare the supply of diminishing marine proteins, fishmeal, derived from marine reduction fisheries and equally spare land and resources in the production of terrestrial animal proteins. Tilapia aquaculture therefore adds to resources that support food security at regional and global scales due to its favourably low trophic niche status (2.0 ± 0.0).

Consequently, “farming down the food web” holds an environmentally positive meaning, while the opposite, “farming up the food web” is believed to be less environmentally sustainable and therefore ethically illogical in the context of global food security.

Paul Greenberg, a fish-industry expert and the author of two books about the future of the oceans, ‘Four Fish and American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood’ believes that farmed tilapia and pangasius, already the fourth- and sixth mostconsumed fish in the US in 2014 respectively, will assume a greater market share moving up a notch or two on the list of Americas top 10 most consumed seafoods in the future (Figure 3).


Market segmentation

The global tilapia farming industry is dominated by second grade product produced in earth pond systems, where fish are highly prone to flavour taints, or often called a muddy taste, caused by blue-green algae and a variety of organisms which thrive in the sludge blanket on the bottom of earth ponds. Such production most often does not meet first grade standards for international markets but nevertheless plays a very important food security role in developing countries where most production is both produced and consumed. This sentiment is supported by surveys conducted by CEMARE at the University of Portsmouth (UK) indicating differing minimum quality standards and market segmentation across the sector.

What is clear is that two tilapia markets will coexist in most of the developing world where both production and consumption is concentrated, 1) regulated local and highly regulated export markets for first grade quality tilapia and 2) less regulated local markets absorbing second grade quality production.

The highly regulated EU and US markets require quality standards compatible with the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system and EU Food Law for entry into US and EU markets respectively. These days highly regulated markets in addition require sustainably produced and responsibly farmed certification(s) such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Best Aquaculture Practice (BAP) or GLOBAL G.A.P. supplemented by Friend of the Sea add-on labelling. Regulated local markets are those where some compliance may be required to meet industry food safety standards issued by local regulatory authorities in addition to perhaps voluntary third party certification. Less regulated markets are informal rural markets and sometimes urban markets where few or no quality, or food safety, prescriptions are mandated by local regulatory authorities on unprocessed whole fish for instance.

Supply options in attractive less regulated markets in the developing world, where local production falls short of local demand, such as Africa (excl. Egypt) and the Middle East for example, could follow two pathways; 1) produce a second grade product, often also smaller fish, targeting less affluent and less formal markets and therefore sell at more affordable prices, or 2) aim to produce first grade product differentiated trough branding targeting middle income urban consumers, the catering industry and formal supermarket retailers in the developing world or exports into international markets. Branding will become mandatory to differentiate first grade from second grade product in countries where both regulated and less regulated markets coexist.

Stringent compliance standards to meet EU Food Law, traceability, health control, contaminants and labelling, coupled with the successful prior penetration of pangasius at competitive prices has made the EU market less attractive for tilapia suppliers.

The EU market for tilapia presents a contrasted picture to that across the Atlantic Ocean displayed in the US market. Tilapia have not been as successful in the EU market. Here pangasius has claimed a 21 percent share of the EU whitefish market and tilapia only 3.25 percent in 2014, according to Erik Hempel a renowned fisheries marketing expert. Some 31,000 tonnes of tilapia were imported into the EU as compared to some 200,000 tonnes of pangasius in 2014.

Distances to the EU market for Asian or South America suppliers is viewed as a disadvantage which makes air freighted fresh fillets less economical for shipment into European markets, unalike the Central and South American fresh fillet supply’s into southern US cities, Miami, Houston, New Orleans etc.

African suppliers could develop and capture the market potential for fresh fillets in the EU, due to proximity advantages, although market forces at present are too favourable for local and regional supply due to huge supply-demand shortfalls in Africa (excluding Egypt) at the moment. This is evident from the 83,000 tonnes of Chinese farmed whole frozen and breaded tilapia imported into African markets in 2016 according the Globefish.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the US tilapia market is well developed and the value-chain more mature importing around 224,500 tonnes in 2016 (Figure 5). Wise sourcing of branded high-quality fresh tilapia products often originating from Central and South American certified commercial operations, just 3 hours flying time away from Miami, has contributed to their successful dominance of the fresh tilapia fillet market in the US. Many of the top commercial South American producers achieve high compliance standards where fish are often depurated or purged for a few days contributing to the more upbeat market image in North American markets particularly the fresh fillet market.

Along with quality and quantity supply provisos, leading commercial tilapia operations in Central and South America have met all the prerequisites for successful penetration into United States market; improved meat colour and flavour properties (free of flavor taints or a muddy taste), consistent volume supply yearround, product diversity, cost/affordability, traceability and finally certifications which have become important in recent years.

Negative publicity concerning the ill health effects of tilapia consumption due to higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids was unfortunate and not reflective of the capacity of producers to regulate the final proximate composition of tilapia fillets. The fatty acid composition of tilapia will generally mirror that of their diets and as such finisher diets consisting of sustainable omega 3 sources such as AlgaPrime™ DHA, coupled with vitamin E supplementation, greatly shifts the n-3/n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio to more healthy levels in the range 1: 2-3 quite easily. The University of Maryland Medical Centre recommends n-3/n-6 ratio’s of 1:4 indicating that finisher diets can offer better ratios than those recommended in a healthy human diet.

Unfortunately, negative publicity has unnecessarily harmed the image of tilapia in North America and the EU markets, based upon poor and misguided reporting, responsible for a drop in tilapia imports into US markets in 2015 of almost three percent on 2014 volumes (Figure 5).

Market opportunities for green growth and special quality tilapia produced using sustainable intensification technologies should be viewed as an opportunity rather than liability. Green growth initiatives, covered in Part 2 to follow, will enable producers to move with the moment and in essence capture consumer trust and market share, while ensuring a sustainable and food secure future.


To read part 2, click here.


This article was originally published in International Aquafeed - January 2018. 

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