The Tilapia Theory

Call me suspicious, but whenever a fish becomes a food craze among chefs in this country, appearing on the pages of Bon Appetit and being trotted out as the perfect health food, I begin wondering what sinister forces are at work in the background. It happened first with redfish in the 1980s — they were on the verge of being wiped out by profit-crazed netters. Now, it seems, tilapia are good evidence that not all is what it seems. Frankly, when my wife told me she had found a wonderful new tilapia recipe several years ago, I recalled the words of my friend Peter, who had spent two years teaching the Congolese how to farm tilapia as part of his Peace Corps duties. “Why tilapia?” I asked. “Because they will live anywhere and eat anything,” he said. “But you wouldn’t want to eat them yourself.”
Granted, properly fed with nutritious natural food, tilapia are probably as healthy as any other fish, and they have saved the lives of thousands of people at risk of starvation. But every time science looks more closely at what actually happens when fish farmers get hold of a species, the results aren’t good. According to Wake Forest researchers, you’d be better off eating steak every day: “Researchers from Wake Forest University Medical Center say you’re better of with a big juicy burger than with this mild, low-fat fish, which turns out to be high in an unhealthful form of fat called long-chain omega-6 fatty acids, especially when it’s produced by fish farms.” Faye Flam in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The takeway is no different than what we knew all along: wild fish — and wild fish habitat — need protection, if only to preserve some relatively healthy alternative to mass-market food production. With all the attention given to the cost savings of preventative medicine, and with the increasingly obvious costs of not preserving our watersheds (e.g. hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone from the salmon fishing closure in California), I wish they’d crunch the numbers on that one.

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  • Nick

    I used to catch (and eat) wild (introduced) Tilapia in Australia where they are a noxious species and had to be killed when caught. They lived in fresh and saltwater, bred vociferously, grew fast and strong, were relatively abundant and challenging enough once hooked to be great fun.
    I hate the thought that they were overpopulating the river system I was fishing, but the amateur angling pressure was enough to weed out the small fish so the ones that were left typically ran at 3-4lb on average.
    Because they were wild they were firm, strong and tasted delicious on their diet of bugs, shrimp and small fish.
    Pretty damn handsome fish as well.
    We used to get them below a dam spillway on light rods with4-6lb mainline, floats and small hooks with worm baits. We also used to get them in the saltwater where they formed schools of consistently sized fish

  • jeff nabors

    oh man, finally a commercial fish i like AND can afford. figures.

  • Curtis duffield

    In Central Florida, Tilapia are in most of the canals and lakes. They do a great job of displacing the native bream and bass especially when they are spawning. We mostly shoot them with a bow. They can strip a lake clean of vegetation which is just wonderful for our native fish. They belong in the same class as the amur, armored catfish, walking catfish and snakehead – better off dead. And by the way, when they come from a shallow canal or lake they taste like dirt.