Tilapia Farming Myths
Organic seafood is a myth
Most people don't know what organic actually means. If they did, they wouldn't place so much value in the word or pay so much extra for the label. They take the word organic and automatically equate it with other words like "humane" or "wholesome". But let's use an organic chicken as an example. In order for a chicken to be deemed "free range", it has to be allowed to roam outdoors in some fashion. This usually turns out to be nothing more than a small concrete slab. To be "organic" it cannot be given antibiotics to cure illness, or vaccines to prevent disease, and most significantly - it can only be fed a diet made with organic ingredients. When you consider that the daily diet of a truly free range "organic" chicken includes a wide variety of insects and plants, limiting its food intake to a handful of ingredients including zinc oxide and granite dust is about as unnatural as it gets. But that said, the feed is an important part of organic farming and is the reason that we mentioned chickens before talking about seafood. Because in order for any animal to be deemed organic, its diet must also be certified as organic.
The reason that seafood can not be labeled as organic under the current Department of Agriculture rules, is almost entirely due to opposition by the Alaskan salmon industry and their lobby in Washington DC. Wild caught salmon can't be organic because they eat other wild fish that aren't certified as organic. Okay, but what about farm raised salmon, where the fish are spawned in hatcheries and where the food can be completely controlled? Well, under the current USDA rules, farmed salmon are organically certifiable. However, the fisherman who catch the wild salmon aren't going to allow their multi-billion dollar industry be threatened by the less-expensive-to-produce farm raised fish.
To satisfy this powerful lobby, politicians within the US government continue to keep seafood out of the hands of the USDA which is the only organization that can certify something as organic. It's true, believe it or not all seafood is kept under the FDA so organic labeling is a non-starter. Very good for the wild caught salmon industry who pays famous Internet quacks like Dr. Axe to promote wild caught over cleaner and less expensive farm raised.
Thinking point: The investment required to gain entry into the wild caught salmon industry is measured in the millions. Whereas the investment required to break into the farm raised salmon industry can be made by just about anyone with access to the proper growing conditions. Using a continued campaign of public mis-trust for all farm raised fish is how the big investors attempt to protect their interests.
So now, instead of marketing fish with an organic label, we have to use words like "All Natural" and "Farm Raised" on the packages instead. Of course, none of this stops the seafood manager at the grocery store from mis-interpreting either of those terms to mean organic, and then simply making a sign that reads "organic tilapia" to sell his fish.
When it comes to making personal choices between wild caught and farm raised, consumers should always choose farm raised from US sources. Whether you believe it or not, we humans have polluted our waterways with raw and treated sewage, petroleum products, fertilizer, pesticide runoff, and a whole host of other toxins. Fortunately, the water used for American farm raised fish, such as tilapia, is treated to a high standard of cleanliness. American farms are inspected under FDA guidelines, and the stock is tested for disease. In addition, the fish are fed a nutritionally complete diet designed to keep them healthy. By all accounts, tilapia from American farms easily qualifies as organic, but the US Department of Agriculture owns all the rights to, and is the only agency that can sanction the word "organic" on any food label. So at least for now, organic seafood remains a myth.
Genetically modified (GMO) tilapia is a myth
There's a lot to think about when it comes to genetically modified foods. After all, as of 2015, 92% of corn, 94% of soybeans, and 94% of cotton grown in the United States is genetically modified. Most people seem to be on the side that is opposed to genetically modified foods, but they fail to understand how to avoid them. Many food ingredients come from genetically modified sources. If the label reads, "modified food starch" or "high fructose corn syrup" or "contains soy", it's probably genetically modified. In fact, over 75% of all processed food products contain some genetically modified ingredients.
What most people don't know is that the list of genetically modified foods is surprisingly short. In one long sentence they are: canola oil, honey, cotton, rice, soybeans, sugar cane, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, flax, papaya, zucchini, summer squash, chicory, tobacco and peas. It should also be noted that every genetically modified food sold in the US requires government approval. And the approval is not a one-way ticket either, the government also removes genetically modified foods when problems arise.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where advertising by using negative inference is a bona-fide marketing strategy, and promoting a product as "non-GMO" has become a powerful marketing tool. By stating that their product is free of any GMOs, companies are hoping that consumers will infer that their competitors products do contain GMOs, or that genetically modified ingredients are common within their product category. In turn, this forces everyone who sells a similar product to say the same thing for no reason whatsoever. On our own tilapia fingerlings for sale page, we unnecessarily state that our tilapia are non-GMO. We do this because our customers started asking us about it after another website starting making the nonsensical claim. The inference is that genetically modified tilapia are common, which is not the case.
So let's clear this one up once and for all. At no time has the US Government approved a genetically modified tilapia for sale to the public. There are absolutely no genetically modified tilapia being farmed for human consumption in the US. The only genetic modifications to tilapia are being done in Europe to "red Nile" tilapia, and again, they are not intended for human consumption.
Red (and White) Nile tilapia are a myth
The first reported red tilapia (Scientific American, 1964) was produced in Taiwan in the 1960's. It was a cross between a mutated mossambicus (Mozambique) female and a niloticus (Nile) male. Later, in the 1970's, another version of red tilapia was created by a geneticist in Florida. He crossed a female hornorum (Wami), with a red and gold mossambicus male. The offspring from the Florida version, called Cherry Snappers, were introduced into countries like Jamaica and Brazil, where they underwent even further cross breeding (intentional and accidental) with other species. These new red mixes made their way throughout central and south America. Meanwhile, in the middle east, Israeli tilapia farmers, eager for a red tilapia of their own, crossed a mutated red nilotica with a wild caught aureus (Blue) tilapia, and created the third major group of red tilapia. The Israeli red tilapia was heavily marketed in places like Jamaica and Colombia, where fish is typically sold as whole. It has been so successful, that natural colored tilapia have all but been removed from the culture of these regions.
But where did the red color originate? Well, colors in tilapia are actually naturally occurring, rare genetic mutations. They are similar in nature to an animal (or human) being born as an albino. Tilapia farmers, anxious to offer fish of a different color, cross breed the rare colored fish with other species, in the hopes that the genetics responsible for the color mutation will be dominant in one or more of hybridized offspring. You might question why they don't simply mate the tilapia with the color mutation to another tilapia of the same species, but unfortunately, it's not always that simple. The natural "wild" colors are always dominant within a species. For a color mutation to be developed without mixing species, the farmer needs a male and a female possessing the same color mutation. In addition, both the male and the female would have to be compatible for breeding, and of similar size. It could take many years for these conditions to present themselves, so hybridizing with other species is the only realistic option.
Sadly, the task isn't over once an offspring with the desired color trait appears. The colored offspring must be incestuously bred back to it's similarly colored parent to have a chance of producing a number of offspring with similar colors. Then, to develop the color even further, the siblings are bred together for a few generations removing the unwanted colors in a process known as culling. After a few more generations, the new color line is introduced to the market.
Some red tilapia variations breed true, meaning that they produce offspring that inherit the color trait. The true breeding red tilapia still need to be regularly culled at the hatchery to prevent them from reverting back to their wild colors. More often than not however, these breeding colonies produce a mix of both naturally colored and red tilapia. In an effort to make the red color more reliable, the three original variations have been crossed with each other, and other species.
The biggest problem with red tilapia is that it is not an actual species. Of course, some tilapia retailers carelessly refer to them as red nile, but that's just a recent marketing gimmick. There is no such thing as a red nile tilapia, other than the single, one-in-a-million, red color mutation already mentioned. In normal hybridization programs, where two pure genetic strains are bred together, the offspring are commonly referred to as a hybrid of the male, but this is not the case with red tilapia. Their description as red nile is being used to create a false impression that they are a genetically pure strain. The same goes for white nile, but we'll save that for another myth.
More tilapia twists
Myth: Tilapia eat poop.
Fact: Tilapia are plant eaters; they do not eat poop unless they are being starved.
Truth: The rumor that tilapia prefer poop stems from an episode of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel in which the host, Mike Rowe, visited a fish farm that raised hybrid striped bass. Mike unknowingly exposed the cruelty of the farmers, as they starved their tilapia into eating the wastes of the more valuable bass. Some time later, after a public outcry, the farm reported that the tilapia were only being used as "cleaners" and were never intended for human consumption. Still not nice, but whatever.
Other investigations into the tilapia farming practices in Honduras, Vietnam, Indonesia and China, have reported that it is not uncommon for fish farmers to starve tilapia into eating hog manure. Surprisingly, this practice does not have to be disclosed when the tilapia filets are imported for sale in US grocery stores. This is actually true of all imported fish. To be safe, you should only eat fish raised in the United States.
By the way, we use the word "starve" loosely to mean "not supplying any legitimate aquatic species food source". Tilapia have very strong strike and graze instincts, and will "nibble" on just about anything that enters their water, including fingers and toes.
Myth: Tilapia drink the water that they swim and live in.
Fact: Fresh water fish do not drink water. Salt water fish do.
Truth: A tilapia is a fresh water fish. It absorbs water through its gills and skin which is why water quality is so important. As a human being, if you swim in muddy water you will be fine because your skin doesn't absorb water into your body like a tilapia. However, if you drink the dirty water, that's a different story. Tilapia that are forced to swim in dirty water will absorb every bit of that nastiness into their bodies.
Myth: Tilapia do not have any of the valuable Omega-3 fatty acids.
Fact: A single serving of tilapia contains 200 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids. That's the same level as mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, cod, haddock and a many other food touted for their health benefits.
Truth: The idea that tilapia do not contain Omega-3 fatty acids is part of a larger campaign to promote wild-caught salmon. It was taken out of context and has been loosely parroted on social media as a statement of fact with no supporting evidence.
Myth: Eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon.
Fact: Eating tilapia is far better for you than eating any pork or beef product. Visit the nutrition link above for the proof.
Truth: The irresponsibly titled post had nothing to do with tilapia at all. In fact, tilapia aren't even mentioned in the text of the article. It was written by a popular blogger to sell fish oil supplements.
Myth: All tilapia are the same.
Fact: Tilapia is not a species, it is a genus. In fact, it is one of three genus' commonly referred to as tilapia.
Truth: As you may remember from biology class. You have a family, in this case Cichlidae, and within that family is a tribe known as Tilapiini, and under that tribe are a few small genus', in our case Oreochromis. Under those genus', you have many species. Each species evolved independently, in different lakes and rivers, going back thousands of years. Each species developed different characteristics to help it survive in its own unique environment. There are endless variations of size, color and temperature tolerance, not to mention that each one tastes different.
Myth: Some tilapia are hybrids, and therefore bad for you
Fact: Almost everything you eat is a hybrid.
Truth: Many people confuse hybrids with genetically modified, which is completely different. Mother nature creates hybrids all the time when plants and animals of different species share genetic material. However mother nature is very random, and mankind won't live long enough to benefit from all of her variations, so we help her along. In our modern world, just about everything you eat is the result of thousands of years of humans helping nature by creating hybrids. Most people are familiar with taking a cutting from one plant, and grafting it on to another, to make a hybrid. Everything from oranges to corn to chickens to cattle are hybrids.
Myth: Fish farms use hormones to change the sex of tilapia from female to male
Fact: Many foreign farms do indeed use hormones to change the sex of tilapia fry from female to male. However, Lakeway Tilapia does not use hormones, and hormone usage is not common in the United States except for the State of New Mexico, where hormone use is actually required by the state's Department of Game and Fish.
Truth: When tilapia are first hatched, they are gender-less; neither male nor female. By dosing them with masculinizing hormones, a fish farmer can cause tilapia fry to develop as male instead of female. In fact, some hormone doses can even convert fingerlings from female to male, provided that they are administered early enough in their development. So why would you want all of your tilapia to be male anyhow? The answer is simple... during their 34 week grow-out period, males (as a whole) grow larger than females. Also, unchecked breeding in aquaculture systems can result in financial losses due to increased food consumption, delayed harvests, and reduced yields. The tilapia farmer is left with few options to address these issues.
The method that Lakeway Tilapia uses to control tilapia populations is precision culling. In a nutshell, we identify the individual tilapia fingerlings that have likely developed as male, while they are still under two inches long. It is very labor intensive, but the result is a predominantly-male tilapia population, without the use of any hormones. As an alternative, the farmer can reduce the chances of reproduction by creating conditions that aren't conducive to spawning, such as in cages or pens, or by simply restricting access to a flat horizontal surface.
Myth: Tilapia loins are the best part of a tilapia.
Fact: Tilapia loins is just a marketing gimmick. Fish do not have loins.
Truth: The loin is the meat on a land mammal, between the lowest ribs and the hip bones. Fish do not have legs, let alone hips and therefore do not have loins. However, some marketing guru realized that people associated the word "loin" with some of the more expensive cuts of beef and pork, and came up with the idea to market 1/2 fillets with a fancy name, and a higher price. This is the same marketing gimmick that brought us chicken tenderloins. To get a "loin" from one of our tilapia, just let it grow to a very large size, then while processing the filets, cut off and discard the bottom half of the filet, and there you go. Lots of extra time to grow, lots of extra tilapia food expense, and lots of wasted filet. It's no wonder that the tilapia loins are so expensive.