Live Tilapia Selection Guide
Which is the right live tilapia species for you?
Tilapia are a tropical fish that thrive naturally in the very warm waters of Africa and the Middle East. For the tilapia farmer, maintaining a suitable water temperature is critical to the success of his operation. The sooner that the farmer can harvest his tilapia, or the longer that he can delay the use of artificial water heating, the more profitable his harvest will be. A High Springs Hybrid tilapia can grow from a one ounce fingerling to over a pound in just four months; and a pure strain Blue tilapia can survive in water down to 47 degrees. Either of these would give the tilapia farmer a significant advantage over the competition.
So why are there still so many fingerling re-sellers pushing various hybrids of Nile and Mozambique tilapia? We suspect the fact that most of them don't actually hatch or farm the fish that they sell is the primary reason. After all, none of them have to pay for the electricity or the indoor space necessary to keep tropical tilapia warm throughout the cold winter. Of course, there will always be hatcheries up in the chilly northern states advertising that any tilapia "can be" farmed anywhere. But keep in mind that professional tilapia hatcheries are indoor operations, and very few of these places actually farm the tilapia that they hatch.
Important point: Avoid buying tilapia from "hatcheries" operated out of a plastic covered cold frame greenhouses. These structures do not keep out disease-carrying rodents, insects, or birds.
Here at Lakeway Tilapia, our farms and hatcheries are located in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. We know what it takes to farm tilapia outside of the tropical south, and still remain profitable. We talk to people every week, who have turned to the Internet for help, only to come away more confused than ever. The amount of conjecture and contradictory information surrounding tilapia farming is staggering. To help put things into focus, we've created this guide to help you select the right live tilapia species for your needs.
Critical Point: At the time that we wrote this page, and several other pages at Lakeway Tilapia, we used the term "Blue Tilapia" in reference to our own pure strain food grade Blue tilapia, intended for human consumption and economical farming. At the time, we only offered food grade tilapia to the public, because the rest were considered inferior and un-farmable. Since that time, several aquaponic dealers and tilapia re-sellers have appeared on the scene, selling random handfuls of unsorted Blue tilapia; about 70% of which would be considered unsuitable by any commercial farm.
Blue tilapia are not clones of each other. Some grow fast and some grow slow. Our food grade tilapia are selected for their rapid growth during the first 240 days of life, whereas pond grade are selected specifically for their small size and slow growth. Wherever you see Blue tilapia mentioned on our site, unless it is stated otherwise, it's safe to assume that we are referring to our food grade Blue tilapia.
For more information, we urge you to read our page on Tilapia Fingerling Grading.
How to use this guide.
This guide is intended to be read from beginning to end, without skipping around. Some sections introduce ideas that are referenced later in the guide. You have never seen tilapia species selection explained in this manner. And we are proud to say that unless someone has plagiarized our words, this is the only place where you will learn to choose the right live tilapia species for your operation from people with years of experience in the field.
We already assume that you know why you want to get involved with tilapia farming. After all, before you searched the Internet and found this page, you had a purpose in mind. If you happen to discover a new direction as a result of reading our guide(s)... even better. But keep your original purpose in mind, as we work our way through this one.
Below you will see a few statements in red text which correspond to several possible reasons why you would want to acquire live tilapia. You might be tempted to skip directly to the one that applies to you, but read all of them, because each one contains information that will apply to the next. We are doing our best to avoid repetitive statements and redundant reading, so we'll only say it once, even if it applies to several purposes. Lets get started.
Hold on just one flippin' minute! I am an aquaponic farmer.
For those of you who don't already know, aquaponics is a system that passes the water from an aquaculture system through hydroponic growing beds. The growing beds can either be filled with a soil-less media, or they can be filled with water, and covered with floating rafts. Most US grocery stores now carry "living" lettuce, in clear plastic containers with the roots still attached, that has been grown in hydroponic systems.
From a tilapia selection perspective, the fact that your operation is aquaponic does not matter. We understand that you have more challenges than you would with a traditional aquaculture setup, but the question of what to do with your harvested tilapia, is the same as it is for everybody else. As you read through this guide, try not to second guess yourself because of something you were told about this species, or that species. For all intents and purposes, the levels of nitrogen-based compounds, produced in your system will be the same no matter which species of tilapia you choose.
Some aquaponic workshops recommend a genetically modified all-male Nile tilapia for commercial aquaponic systems. This is being taught to mitigate the (largely imaginary) problems associated with uncontrolled spawning. Unfortunately, outside of the tropical south, the weather will get too cold before Niles are ready for harvest and a considerable investment may be required to keep them alive. This can greatly affect the profitability of the farm. We recommend instead, that growers choose the correct species for their intended purpose and learn to prevent unwanted spawning.
Contrary to popular belief, tilapia are not the "spawning machines" that they have been branded. In fact, it's challenging enough to get them to breed when you want them to. Tilapia require some very specific conditions to successfully reproduce, that simply don't exist in an aquaponic system. These conditions include:
- A safe, relatively flat surface, for the female to lay her eggs, then scoop them into her mouth, before they are eaten by the other tilapia.
- A location that the male can defend, while the female deposits her eggs to be fertilized. After the male quickly releases his sperm, he goes back to defending the spot while the female gathers the eggs back into her mouth. This process is repeated several times until the eggs are fertilized. Each time, the male must fight back other fish determined to eat the eggs.
- The female must have a willingness to starve for about two weeks. In nature, female tilapia occasionally hide their eggs and fry while they eat, then pick them back up. In an aquaponic system, she has no place to hide them, and can't eat. If she gets hungry enough, she will eat them, or spit them out.
- A relatively stress-free environment. Stress can make a female swallow her eggs in one gulp, or spit them out. Stress can be caused by changes in water chemistry, or human contact, such as nets.
- A pH of about 8.0. Typically, aquaponics system water is kept closer to 6.0.
- A temperature of about 85º fahrenheit is required for timely egg incubation.
Important point: The propensity to spawn is a genetic trait that exists to a varying degree for each individual tilapia.
Even with all of the above conditions absent, tilapia still do, on rare occasions, defy the odds and spawn in aquaponic systems. The only real problem associated with spawning has to do with the young tilapia eating the exposed roots in floating raft systems. Other than that, they get deposited into the growing media where they die, or get chewed up by the pump with the same results. In commercial aquaculture, where there are no plants to be concerned with, the problems associated with spawning are economic: increased feed cost, delay of harvest, and lowered yield per fish.
The big advantage of pure strain Blue tilapia, has to do with the temperature at which they can thrive before expensive heating is required. It may not seem like a lot, but that 11 degree difference between Nile and Blue adds up to big money at harvest time. However, if the temperature is not a concern for you, then we recommend that you stock your system with predominantly-male High Spring hybrids, a special cross of Wami and Mossambique. Under optimal conditions, these tilapia can grow from fingerling to a large harvest size in as little as four months, and can yield upwards of 52 percent of their body weight as edible filets.
Important point: There are a few tilapia re-sellers promoting hybrid crosses of Nile and Blue tilapia. Their claim is that these hybrids have the poor water quality and low oxygen tolerances of Niles, and the low temperature tolerances of Blue. This is utter nonsense. When chromosomes combine, all of those DNA "instructions" can just as easily result in the worst of all possible traits.
Choosing the right live tilapia species for your purposes.
"I want to sell tilapia fillets to grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and other consumers."
Please note that, in this section, we are only talking about processed tilapia filets.
From the moment that you touch a knife to a tilapia intended for sale to the public, you subject yourself to the FDA and several federal laws. The USDA is in charge of most things grown and raised on land-based farms, such as crops and beef, but when it comes to fish, the FDA has all the authority. First and foremost, you will have to get yourself certified to develop a HACCP (pronounced hassip) plan for your operation. This requires some online training, about 600 pages of reading, and an airline flight to a one-day final exam by an instructor. You will also have to take an online course in sanitation, with even more reading. You will have to learn about the required labeling, such as country of origin and nutritional labeling, right down to the font sizes that must be used. You will have to read a big manual about how to reliably trace your product forwards and backwards, in case you make a mistake and need execute a recall of your products. You will also need to know how to conduct your recall under federal guidelines, to keep yourself out of legal hot water, in case someone gets sick, or even dies, from eating your processed tilapia.
You will have to process your tilapia in a clean, insect free, environment. The grounds around your processing area must be completely devoid of all pests. You will need a complete analysis of all of your incoming water from the municipal water source, or be ready to treat your well water if it's not absolutely perfect. And, don't forget about the processing waste water. It's considered a biohazard, so you'll have to dispose of it properly. Finally, you will have to buy thousands of dollars worth of stainless steel equipment on which to process your filets, and have the ability to keep your tilapia ice cold from the point where you kill them, until you freeze their filets for sale.
Obviously, selling tilapia filets is very involved, so the choice of which tilapia species is absolutely critical to the success of the operation. To be competitive, you will need to take every advantage that you can. Considerations include:
- The time that it takes for the tilapia to grow to their optimal harvest size.
- The amount of useable filets that can be taken from each tilapia.
- The cost to get the tilapia to harvest size, including food, electricity, filtration, and maintenance.
- Prevention of spawning in aquaculture ponds.
There is only one tilapia that meets all of these requirements optimally: the High Springs Hybrid. This hybrid is the result of crossing a unique variant of Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) with a specially developed Wami tilapia (Oreochromis urolepis hornorum). The resulting hybrids grow at a phenomenal rate, and can go from fingerlings to harvest size in only four months using oxygen intensive farming methods, or six months using nominal farming methods. That's about 50 percent faster than the second-fastest growing tilapia. As a bonus, these Wami hybrids are predominantly-male due to their natural genetics, which eliminates the necessity to use masculinizing feed (hormones) in order to prevent uncontrolled spawning in conventional systems.
The reason that these Wami hybrids are predominantly-male is revealed with some basic biology. Wami males naturally produce more testosterone than Mozambique males, and Mozambique females produce less estrogen than Wami females. So when you cross a Wami male with a Mozambique female it is more likely that the offspring, or progeny, will develop testicles instead of ovaries. If you want to get more in-depth with the genetics of predominantly-male tilapia, have a look at our tilapia genetics page to learn about Wami hybrids. In any event, this is not "genetic modification" as the ministers of the organic faith would have you believe. It's just the amazing result of two fish doing what comes naturally.
Do not let yourself be confused by all of the rhetoric on the Internet, or by the claims of other hatcheries that don't offer the High Springs Hybrids. These tilapia can be raised and sold with the very same possibilities for organic labeling as any other seafood. And no, they are not genetically modified. They are the result of two pure strain parents, both of which are the results of years of extensive culling to achieve the improved body form and desired traits. Click on the blue links for more information on these subjects.
If Wami tilapia or their hybrids are not allowed in your area, your next best choice is pure strain food grade Blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus). In North America, if you live anywhere outside of the Gulf Coast, or the Florida peninsula, you could spend a fortune keeping your pond water warm enough for any other species of tilapia other than pure strain Blue. The more electricity that you have to pay for to keep your tilapia warm, the less profitable you will be. At first glance, this fact alone might make Blue tilapia the clear winner, but remember, even though High Springs Hybrids require warmer water than Blue tilapia, they grow so fast that they can be harvested before the cost of keeping them warm becomes an issue.
Important point: The reason that we keep repeating "pure strain" is because every bit of established genetic data, farming data, and feeding data applies only to pure strain. With all of the aquaponic system owners mixing tilapia species and then selling their accidentally bred fingerlings on the Internet as "Blue" or "Nile" to make a quick buck, the purity of the tilapia species originating from amateur breeders is questionable at best. It is not possible to apply any of the information presented in our guides to these unknown or impure tilapia "mixes".
So, if your tilapia farming goals are to manufacture a processed tilapia product, such as vacuum packed frozen filets, your first choice should be High Springs Hybrids and your second choice should be pure strain food grade Blue.
A quick note on the USDA and tilapia.
In the above section, we pointed out that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) retains authority over seafood. This does not mean that the US Department of Agriculture needs to be completely out of the picture. To sell your tilapia commercially, you will most likely need a health certificate to prove that your tilapia are disease free. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) can be of service in helping you to locate a veterinarian capable of signing off on your laboratory paperwork, although just about any 3rd party official or private veterinarian can do it too. The reason that we mention this separately from the scenarios in this guide is because, the health certificate requirement is still fairly random, and in most cases it is at the discretion of the individual places where you do business.
"I want to sell whole tilapia on ice to grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and other consumers."
Please note that, in this section, we are only talking about whole tilapia on ice.
This requires much less of an investment than selling processed filets, but it's not without its own challenges. Grocery stores with seafood processing areas, typically operate under their own HACCP plans. A likely part of their HACCP plan is to make sure that the facilities who supply their raw unprocessed seafoods, are also HACCP certified. So even though your involvement in the process amounts to no more than dropping the live tilapia into near freezing water to kill them, the store will still need to know that you raised your tilapia, and ultimately killed them, following all of the seafood safety guidelines established by the FDA.
Restaurants however, operate under a different set of rules that are far more strict than any HACCP plan, so they typically only care that your tilapia are clean and in good health. That said, a HACCP certification and a Health Certificate will go a long way towards convincing the restaurant owner or chef that his customers are safe eating your tilapia.
Farmers markets on the other hand come in many forms, ranging from the highly organized, to the impromptu roadside gathering. Some farmers markets are supported by the local community as a way to bring in visitors from the surrounding areas, while others are farm-supported to provide low cost produce to rural customers. In general, most farmers markets don't have very many restrictions. But there are those that require all the permits and certifications that a grocery store might have. It is important to find out who is in charge and ask them what you need.
Selling tilapia on ice directly to you own customers is about as easy as it gets. Just putting up a roadside sign to advertise your prices may bring in all the business you'll ever need. Be sure to let all of your neighbors know what you are doing too. One of our local hatchery customers sells whole tilapia on ice to his neighbors for about three dollars per pound. He claims that his entire advertising campaign consisted of nothing more than a few weekends of knocking on doors, introducing himself, and leaving his business card. He sells over a thousand pounds per month out of his backyard tilapia farm and is still growing.
In addition to all of the considerations mentioned in the previous section about selling processed tilapia filets, there are three additional issues specific to selling whole tilapia on ice that should be given some thought:
- Will the people being served the tilapia dish have an opportunity to see the dead tilapia beforehand?
- Is the size or thickness of the filet meat important to the dish being prepared?
- Is the actual color or tint of the filet important?
When it comes to selling whole tilapia on ice... looks matter. If you're fortunate enough to live near a city with a major fish market, make a point to go and see for yourself how the appearance of a fish can affect its demand and people's perception of its wholesomeness. For years, tilapia farmers have attempted to increase the overall value of their fish by cross-breeding between species for certain color traits. The most notable are Red, White, Thai Red, and Gold. The downside to these colorful tilapia is that they only do well in niche cultural markets. They miss the mark completely when it comes to the broader appeal. Don't forget that people who buy whole fish aren't squeamish. They already know what a wholesome fish looks like. As you market your tilapia, you will find it much easier to sell to existing whole fish customers, rather than using colorful fish in an attempt to convert new people who have previously only purchased cellophane wrapped filets at the grocery store.
People who buy whole tilapia on ice are expecting a level of quality and freshness that goes far beyond the grocery store or restaurant supplier. And while freshness of your tilapia may be evident by the fact that they were killed only hours before, the quality is in the eyes and palates of the buyer. This is where the size and shape of the tilapia come into play.
We recommend that you consider naturally colored Blue tilapia as your first choice for selling whole on ice. Blue tilapia are very wholesome and healthy looking with nice coloring and patterns. Blue tilapia yield above average sized filets of firm white meat, that looks excellent in any recipe. They even look good in recipes where the fish is cooked and served whole. Blue tilapia are also known in some parts of the world as St. Peters Fish, and are a standard menu item all along the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) and throughout Israel. Blue tilapia are of cultural significance to the Israeli community, and like all tilapia, they can be prepared Kosher.
From a farming perspective, food grade Blue tilapia can be raised very competitively, because they grow to harvest size quickly, and can survive in water temperatures that would kill any other tilapia. The reason that much of the tilapia in American grocery stores comes from places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Honduras, and of course China, is that it can be raised much cheaper, without the use of electricity, over an extended period of time. This lowers the cost of the fish to the grocery store chain, giving them more profit at the checkout. If you want to be competitive in North America, you can't spend your profits fighting our cooler climate. Of course, some people will tell you that all you need to do, is setup a solar water heater, but that is an over-simplification of the issue. In practical use, solar water heating only ends up supplementing the expensive electric heat. By the time you factor in months of cold, overcast winter skies, and snowfall, your electric heating system will become your only source of warm water. Remember, it only takes a few minutes below 60 degrees, before Nile tilapia die. On the other hand, a pure strain Blue tilapia can survive down to 47 degrees, costing the farmer much less to keep alive.
As a second choice, if competition from other farmers and grocery stores isn't a concern in your particular situation, we do recommend naturally colored pure strain food grade Nile tilapia. Depending on the time of year, they can cost more to raise in North America, but they have the filet color and shape that the cello-wrapped crowd is used to seeing, and their natural colors will make them easier to sell as "all natural" over the white and red tilapia mixes.
"I want to sell Tilapia filets, nuggets, and tacos in my own restaurant."
Please note that we are only talking about processed tilapia, served in your own restaurant.
Believe it or not, if you set up your own restaurant and sell cooked tilapia that is intended to be eaten immediately, you do not have to do anything with the Federal government as far as your farmed fish are concerned. Running a restaurant is mired so deeply in state food safety regulations and local inspections, that filleting a fish in your commercial kitchen, for your own retail customers, far surpasses any FDA requirements concerning fish processing. You will probably still want to raise your fish with a HAACP plan, just to keep yourself out of legal hot water if someone gets sick after eating at your restaurant,but there is no certification requirement by the FDA.
For your own restaurant, where your customers will only see the filets, we recommend Wami tilapia hybrids such as the High Springs Hybrid. These hybrids will easily give you the highest profits for all the reasons mentioned in the previous sections. If Wami tilapia are not allowed in your area, we recommend Blue tilapia due to their more forgiving water temperature tolerance. We do not recommend that you get involved with breeding colonies or hatchery operations, as these are very involved and may prove to be an unusual burden on your restaurant staff.
"I want to sell harvest size whole live tilapia."
Please note that we are only talking about one pound or larger whole live tilapia.
At Lakeway Tilapia, we sell one pound and larger live tilapia, to our local customers, for between two and eight dollars per pound, depending on the species, and our supply. Tennessee laws do not allow us to sell living Wami hybrids, so the most popular selling live species is the Blue tilapia. However, it is not unusual for our customers to ask for us to put their fish on ice, after they select their "catch of the day", so that they are ready to filet when they get home. Customers who do want their tilapia put on ice can also choose to buy live Wami tilapia, since the ice water kills them before they leave the property. No matter which species they decide on, they always come back and say it was the best tilapia they've ever eaten.
Our secret to great tasting tilapia is our "finishing ponds", also known as purge ponds. A purge pond can be any clean container or pond that is filled with drinking-water quality crystal clear water. We put our tilapia into these finishing ponds for five to seven days prior to selling them or processing them into filets. While in the purge pond, the tilapia rid themselves of all internal wastes, algae, and organic matter. This process completely eliminates the "fishy taste" that can be challenging to work with when preparing meals.
Selling whole live tilapia is very straightforward, and requires nothing from the federal government. Here in Tennessee, you need a Fish Dealers License, but that can be purchased at Walmart for 50 dollars. You should check our tilapia legal information page for your own state's requirements. The trick to making a profit by selling whole live tilapia is to have them available all year long. This can be accomplished by staggering your harvest times throughout the year. How you stagger your harvest is up to you and part of the art of tilapia farming. Below is a sample of just one way to stagger your harvest.
- January - Harvest Blue tilapia received in May. Receive Nile tilapia - keep indoors until March. Receive Wami tilapia - keep indoors until March.
- February - Harvest Blue tilapia received in June. Receive Nile tilapia - keep indoors until March. Receive Wami tilapia -keep indoors until March.
- March - Harvest Blue tilapia received in July. Receive Nile tilapia.
- April - Harvest Blue tilapia received in August. Receive Nile tilapia.
- May - Harvest Wami tilapia received in November. Receive Blue tilapia.
- June - Harvest Wami tilapia received in December. Receive Blue tilapia.
- July - Harvest Wami tilapia received in January. Receive Blue tilapia.
- August - Harvest Wami tilapia received in February. Receive blue tilapia.
- September - Harvest Nile tilapia received in January.
- October - Harvest Nile tilapia received in February.
- November - Harvest Nile tilapia received in March. Receive Wami tilapia - keep indoors as long as practical.
- December - Harvest Nile tilapia received in April. Receive Wami tilapia - keep indoors as long as practical.
This particular pattern accomplishes a few things for farmers in our area: First and foremost, it allows for a variety of tilapia to be harvested year round. It saves money by allowing them to lower their pond temperatures by ten degrees for Blue tilapia, and it lets them take advantage of the relatively short winter season, by keeping the incoming tilapia fingerlings indoors for a few weeks before putting them into their pond.
Your own schedule will look completely different depending on several factors, such as the total number of ponds you have, the sizes of your ponds, the number of ponds you have indoors, the length of your winter, and the species allowed in your state, etc. For some of you, it may only be viable to harvest and receive Blue tilapia every month. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where your pond temperatures rarely drop below 60 degrees, you can make a profit with any tilapia species.
"I want to start my own tilapia hatchery to sell tilapia fingerlings and breeding colonies."
If you are the sort of person who likes lab coats, scientific measuring equipment, test tubes, and taking notes, then running a tilapia hatchery might be your thing. If you find yourself talking to fish at feeding time, or making baby talk to fry, you will probably enjoy running a hatchery. If you don't mind mopping and sanitizing every day, that will most certainly be a plus. If you have some business experience, and a strong ability to get the word out about your hatchery, then you'll probably do pretty good. Running a tilapia hatchery is all of these and more. From our own perspective, running a tilapia hatchery is by far the most rewarding thing we have ever done. We highly recommend it to anyone who has a love of small animals, especially baby fish.
Unfortunately, all of the love in the world isn't going to help you sell your fingerlings. So the first thing you need to do is figure out to whom you will sell your tilapia and how you will let them know. We recommend that you hold off on hatching your own tilapia fingerlings until after you find out who your customers are and what they actually want. Remember that the demand for your products will be based on the needs of the people to whom your advertising reaches, and may not be what you initially anticipated. Setting up for the wrong species can be a ten-thousand-dollar mistake. Trust us, we've been there.
You should start off by buying one hundred pure strain mixed-sex Blue tilapia fingerlings, one hundred predominantly-male Wami hybrid tilapia fingerlings, and one hundred pure strain mixed-sex Nile tilapia fingerlings. Put them into three 55 gallon aquariums, and get yourself familiar with the day-to-day responsibilities while you attempt to sell them. Before long, you will be able to identify the males from the females in the mixed sex tanks, and you can use them as the basis to make your own breeding colonies. By the end of your first year, you will know everything that you need to know about the demand for your fingerlings, and your ability to sell them.
Later on, as you invest and expand, you can purchase more specialized breeding colonies, such as our High Springs Hybrid or genetically modified Nile males, to increase your stock of predominantly-male fingerlings. We do not recommend, however, that you invest your efforts into procuring breeding sets to produce either of these males. A breeding pair to produce the Sipe's Hornorum (Wami) cannot be purchased without the consent of Mike Sipe himself, and genetically modified Nile males with YY chromosome pairs are lab produced in Europe, and protected by international patents. While it is true that you might pay a little bit more per male than we do, you don't have to buy or import hundreds at a time as we do.
Fair Warning: We are responsible for helping to establish much of our own retail competition. Why? Because most of our tilapia fingerlings are headed for commercial and institutional operations. These types of customers are typically under contractual obligations or funded by grants and can't be easily "taken" due to the planning or red tape involved. Internet sales of tilapia fingerlings to private individuals accounts for around 200 thousand fish per year. By the time you factor in all of the re-sellers, accidental breeders, and aquaponic opportunists, setting up websites and buying pay-to-click ads, the Internet competition feels like a bunch of wolves fighting over a hummingbird. We strongly urge you to find a place to sell your fingerlings away from the Internet if you want to make a career out of it.
"I just want to farm tilapia at home to feed my family and friends. I don't want to sell my fish to anyone."
One of the great things about tilapia farming at home for your own personal use, is the absolute sense of independence and freedom that it provides. Because you aren't selling your tilapia, there is no FDA involvement. You won't need a fish dealers license if your state requires one to sell tilapia, and you won't need a business license either. In fact, you won't even have to set up a business, do any accounting, or pay any taxes.
Another nice thing about raising and processing tilapia for your own personal use is that you can plan your growing season and harvest date just as you would with any garden crop. This can be accomplished by keeping a breeding colony in separate aquariums for the male and the females until you are ready for them to spawn. In our area, January is about right. As soon as you can economically keep the water temperature warm enough, you can move the fingerlings into your pond. For us, this doesn't happen until about April or May, but everyone has their own microclimate so you'll have to be the judge.
Remember, tilapia convert a higher percentage of food into weight during their first 240 days of their life. After that, they grow much slower and the amount of food eaten to weight gained goes up considerably. By starting out with a pure strain food grade Blue tilapia or a Wami hybrid, you will achieve the highest weight gain for the lowest food, electricity, and maintenance costs.
Critical Point: It costs an average of .45 cents to raise a tilapia during its first eight months of life. It will cost about .90 cents more to raise a tilapia for an additional ten months due to the increasingly greater monthly expenses involved. Unfortunately, the weight gain during this extra time will be less than 50% of the first eight months. Don't be lured into saving a few cents on fingerlings today, then lose your savings later in higher costs. Only buy food grade whenever you can. By the way, tilapia older than 18 months are a bit too gamey for our taste buds, which is why we didn't go out any further with our cost example.
If your aspirations fall more on the survivalist side and you don't want to be dependent on Purina for your fish food, you can feed your tilapia duckweed (Lemna minor) instead. Remember that while all tilapia are considered omnivores because of their ability to thrive on a wide variety of food, in nature, tilapia are primarily herbivores. Their jaws and teeth are specifically designed to scrape algae from rocks and grind aquatic plants. If you can grow it in sufficient quantity, duckweed is all that your tilapia will need from fingerling to harvest size. For tilapia fry, you can grow algae by putting an aquarium in a sunlit window and then scraping off what you need to feed your fry.
We recommend that you focus your home tilapia farm on the production of food grade pure strain Blue tilapia for all the reasons mentioned in the previous sections. If you happen to be one of the unlucky few who lives in a state that doesn't allow Blue tilapia, then we recommend that you choose natural Wami hybrids, for their rapid growth, as your second choice. If you want to raise your own tilapia from eggs, you will need to purchase a breeding colony. A breeding colony is capable of producing thousands of offspring over several years. Of course, if they are making too many babies for you to keep up with, you can always separate them.
"I just want my tilapia to get rid of algae and duckweed in my pond. I don't want to eat them."
For pond owners who wish to avoid the use of herbicides in their ponds, nothing can beat the appetite of a pond grade Blue tilapia. These special tilapia are separated out during the fingerling grading process due to their small size, and subsequent slow growth rate. Here's a quick explanation of why they are so unique.
When tilapia are first hatched, they eat algae in an amount equal to 20% per day of their body weight per day. This food intake drops to about 8% of their body weight per day during the first month, but the increase in size gives the net affect of greater consumption by volume. They prefer to graze very close to the shore where the water is shallow, and they are relatively safe from the predators of deeper waters. As luck would have it, this is also where most of the algae in a pond is produced, due to an abundance of sunlight.
As the tilapia grow into fingerlings, they add small aquatic plants to their diet, such as duckweed. Their food intake drops from 8% to 1.5% or their body weight over the next month, however, once again their increase in size results in an increase in overall consumption by volume. By the time that they are a couple of months old, their daily weight gain stays pretty constant of the next six months. Unfortunately for the pond owner, after a tilapia reaches adulthood, it is far more interested in larger aquatic plants than it is in algae. Enter the pond grade Blue tilapia.
Once upon a time, these tilapia were destroyed as inferior by tilapia hatcheries. A pond grade blue tilapia grows very slowly. So slow in fact, that it may never grow larger than eight inches. Even if it does, their older age to harvest gives them a river bottom taste that most people find hard to swallow. Fortunately for these little fish, pond owners discovered a job of them that's perfectly suited for their unique physiology.
As a pond cleaner, they are perfect. Instead of eventually growing to a point where they ignore shoreline algae for deeper water grazing, these remain small and continue to graze on a combination of algae and duckweed. In areas where ponds freeze in winter, the lower cost of pond grade blue tilapia makes restocking them in the spring a worthwhile enterprise.
"I need tilapia for my aquaponics system. I may eat one from time to time, but I am more focused on my plants."
The whole idea of aquaponics is harmony, balance, and being good stewards for the environment. Yet every day, people toss random handfuls of unsorted blue or nile tilapia of questionable origin into their systems, and then hope for the best.
The problem goes back to aquaponics dealers and educators who tend to be very plant-centric, and view tilapia as nothing more than another system component. People who build DIY aquaponics systems out of IBC totes, usually only set aside one tote for their tilapia; which means that they are typically only going to raise about 75 fish at a time. Compared to their expected vegetable crop output, a mere 35 pounds of finished tilapia filets just isn't that exciting.
Another problem has to do with the marriage of hydroponic and aquaculture systems in general. As you undoubtedly know, aquaponics is really nothing more than water from an aquaculture (fish) system flowing through a hydroponic (plant) system. As separate systems, each is set up to perfectly support the life that they hold. However, when they are combined, a compromise must be found that both sides can live with. Take pH for example. Tilapia thrive best in a pH of 8.0, however many plants like a pH closer to 6.0. In an aquaponic system, a trade off is made that both the plants and the fish can work with. The compromise is idea for neither, and as a result, neither will achieve the performance results of their separated systems, however both will survive and do well.
To prove the point about aquaponics educators being plant-centric, many course materials have aquaponic growers set their pH to exactly match the needs of the plants, or incorporate composting worms, without any regard to the "comfort" of the tilapia. The whole attitude seems to be: "let the tilapia tough it out... they'll survive".
So the common sense question is: Why even bother with the tilapia in the first place? After all, fertilizer solutions for hydroponic systems are far cheaper than tilapia, and hydroponics requires a lot less maintenance. The truth is, it all goes back to harmony, balance, and stewardship of the environment. Done right, aquaponics is a near-perfect growing method. Of course, our version of "done right" is an actual balance that isn't one-sided in favor of the plants.
When people select plants for their aquaponic systems, they do their research. They read about how fast their plants will grow and how good they will taste. They don't limit themselves to the lowest price. They understand that the lowest price usually means inferior seeds. They only buy their seeds from a reputable supplier that has great customer service and never-ending free advice, online and offline. It kind of makes you wonder why many of these same people are so willing to carelessly buy random handfuls of tilapia fingerlings from re-sellers websites with nothing more to offer than places to spend their money. sigh
When it comes to selecting tilapia fingerlings for aquaponic systems, there are only two rules that should be followed:
- Only keep one species at a time.
- Only keep one grade at a time.
The tilapia in an aquaponic system are already in less-than-ideal conditions in general. As individuals, they have slight physiological differences within their own species as well. In other words, even in an aquaponics system where only one species exists, every tilapia is experiencing the environmental conditions in its own unique way. Sort of how some people have allergies, or are always cold, or react differently to stressful situations. Tilapia also exhibit different behaviors such as aggression, or dominance, or submission. Most tilapia swim in social schools, however some individuals keep to the edges of the group, or outside of it entirely.
When species are mixed, the number of stressed individuals increases to a point where their immune systems can be compromised, and random deaths will begin to occur. Lowered immune systems can also result in parasitic outbreaks, or even a pathogen, which can wipe out an entire aquaponic system, including the grow beds.
As far as putting ungraded, or mixed grade fingerlings in an aquaponic system is concerned, we have an entire page that explains fingerling grading in great detail. We urge you to educate yourself about fingerling grading before putting any tilapia into your aquaponic system.
Provided that you follow the above two guidelines, just about any species or grade will work in an aquaponic system. The only grade to avoid should be pond grade, due to the fact that there will be no possibility of food return on the tilapia investment.