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The Tilapia Theory

July 10, 2008 By: Marshall Cutchin

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.