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The adaptable tilapia is a commonly farmed fish in South Africa


Tilapia, the third most consumed fish in America, is under fire.

Increasingly, this fish is grown in China and bad farming practices, some experts argue, are causing the food to suffer nutritionally (some have even called the fish as "bad for you as bacon")  But industry and watchdog leaders are now changing those practices, working hard to make this easy-to-raise fish safer and healthier to eat.  

Here's what you need to know to find a sustainable, nutritious fillet of one of the most popular fish in the U.S.

The Problems with Farming

The bigger problem with tilapia is where and how this fish is frequently farmed. It's nearly impossible to find U.S.-bred tilapia fillets because our colder climate requires these tropical fish to be grown in expensive indoor tanks, says Michael Rubino, director of the NOAA Fisheries Aquaculture Program. Almost all of the frozen fillets sold in grocery stores and served at restaurants come from China, while most fresh tilapia fillets come from Central America.
Although there are some highly reputable global producers that grow healthy fish in an environmentally sound fashion — namely the world's largest producer, Regal Springs — there are many farmers, especially in Asia, that do not. Many foreign producers in under-regulated nations have been found to raise diseased tilapia in too-tight quarters, pumping fish full of antibiotics, clearing forests to make room for on-shore tanks, and even feeding fish feces. Such measures not only yield poor-quality fish but can cause major damage to the surrounding land and water.
But how much of these practices are actually going on? "There's never smoke without a fire, so some of the negative press about tilapia farming is certainly true," says Magdalena Wallhoff, global sales director at Regal Springs, which grows fish in floating pens in deep lakes in Honduras, Mexico, and Indonesia. "In China the stocking density can be extreme; fish are grown in muddy ponds and farmers don't buy high-quality feed because it costs too much."

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, "Aquaculture in South Africa is divided into freshwater aquaculture and marine aquaculture. Freshwater fish culture is severely limited by the supply of suitable water. The most important areas for the production of freshwater species are the Limpopo, Mpumalanga Lowveld and Northern Kwazulu–Natal. Trout is farmed along the high mountain in Lydenburg area, Kwazulu-Natal Drakensberg and the Western Cape. Other freshwater species cultivated on a small scale include catfish, freshwater crayfish and tilapia species. Marine aquaculture is a fast developing sector, with a focus on mussels, oysters, abalone, seaweeds and prawns. Of these, mussel farming is the best established. abalone culture is now well established, centred in the Hermanus area on the Cape south coast. There is also an experimental offshore farm (cage culture) off Gansbaai for salmon.
Export data from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries indicate that the South African industry is dominated by the Western Cape province, which accounts for more than 80% of all South African aquaculture produce, followed by the Eastern Cape at a distant 12.75%.
The Department of Trade and Industry states in its sector diagnostic study, that national aquaculture production data (2003–2006) in 2003 was 3,485 tons and in 2006 was 3,564 tons which had a value of R210. Abalone accounted for the biggest increase with production increasing by 61% from 515 tons in 2003, to 833 tons in 2006. Declines in production were experienced by the following sub-sectors: oyster, mussel and trout with reductions in production of 19.2%, 39.5% and 18.4% respectively.

 

Position of the South African industry in relation to the global industry

The industry in South Africa is in its infancy, with production volumes being very low, even compared to its continental peers where Egypt and Nigeria lead the pack.

 

Government policy and support towards the sector

Aquaculture has been identified as a critical industry, due to the popularity of its produce and the declining yields world-wide. In South Africa, Aquaculture has been identified as part of the key industries for promotion in line with the country’s Industrial Policy Action Plan II (IPAP II). The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is also lending its support to the sector and encouraging collaboration with stakeholders across the sector.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, "Aquaculture in South Africa is divided into freshwater aquaculture and marine aquaculture. Freshwater fish culture is severely limited by the supply of suitable water. The most important areas for the production of freshwater species are the Limpopo, Mpumalanga Lowveld and Northern Kwazulu–Natal. Trout is farmed along the high mountain in Lydenburg area, Kwazulu-Natal Drakensberg and the Western Cape. Other freshwater species cultivated on a small scale include catfish, freshwater crayfish and tilapia species. Marine aquaculture is a fast developing sector, with a focus on mussels, oysters, abalone, seaweeds and prawns. Of these, mussel farming is the best established. abalone culture is now well established, centred in the Hermanus area on the Cape south coast. There is also an experimental offshore farm (cage culture) off Gansbaai for salmon."[1]
Export data from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries indicate that the South African industry is dominated by the Western Cape province, which accounts for more than 80% of all South African aquaculture produce, followed by the Eastern Cape at a distant 12.75%.
The Department of Trade and Industry states in its sector diagnostic study, that national aquaculture production data (2003–2006) in 2003 was 3,485 tons and in 2006 was 3,564 tons which had a value of R210. Abalone accounted for the biggest increase with production increasing by 61% from 515 tons in 2003, to 833 tons in 2006. Declines in production were experienced by the following sub-sectors: oyster, mussel and trout with reductions in production of 19.2%, 39.5% and 18.4% respectively.

 

Position of the South African industry in relation to the global industry

The industry in South Africa is in its infancy, with production volumes being very low, even compared to its continental peers where Egypt and Nigeria lead the pack.

 

Government policy and support towards the sector

Aquaculture has been identified as a critical industry, due to the popularity of its produce and the declining yields world-wide. In South Africa, Aquaculture has been identified as part of the key industries for promotion in line with the country’s Industrial Policy Action Plan II (IPAP II). The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is also lending its support to the sector and encouraging collaboration with stakeholders across the sector.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, "Aquaculture in South Africa is divided into freshwater aquaculture and marine aquaculture. Freshwater fish culture is severely limited by the supply of suitable water. The most important areas for the production of freshwater species are the Limpopo, Mpumalanga Lowveld and Northern Kwazulu–Natal. Trout is farmed along the high mountain in Lydenburg area, Kwazulu-Natal Drakensberg and the Western Cape. Other freshwater species cultivated on a small scale include catfish, freshwater crayfish and tilapia species. Marine aquaculture is a fast developing sector, with a focus on mussels, oysters, abalone, seaweeds and prawns. Of these, mussel farming is the best established. abalone culture is now well established, centred in the Hermanus area on the Cape south coast. There is also an experimental offshore farm (cage culture) off Gansbaai for salmon."
Export data from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries indicate that the South African industry is dominated by the Western Cape province, which accounts for more than 80% of all South African aquaculture produce, followed by the Eastern Cape at a distant 12.75%.
The Department of Trade and Industry states in its sector diagnostic study, that national aquaculture production data (2003–2006) in 2003 was 3,485 tons and in 2006 was 3,564 tons which had a value of R210. Abalone accounted for the biggest increase with production increasing by 61% from 515 tons in 2003, to 833 tons in 2006. Declines in production were experienced by the following sub-sectors: oyster, mussel and trout with reductions in production of 19.2%, 39.5% and 18.4% respectively.

 

Position of the South African industry in relation to the global industry

The industry in South Africa is in its infancy, with production volumes being very low, even compared to its continental peers where Egypt and Nigeria lead the pack.

 

Government policy and support towards the sector

Aquaculture has been identified as a critical industry, due to the popularity of its produce and the declining yields world-wide. In South Africa, Aquaculture has been identified as part of the key industries for promotion in line with the country’s Industrial Policy Action Plan II (IPAP II). The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is also lending its support to the sector and encouraging collaboration with stakeholders across the sector.

 

NICOLAS JAMES

Aquaculture is far more diverse than many realise. The practice can vary in size, technique and breeds.

Some 20 years ago, when people heard that I was involved in fish farming, they automatically assumed I was breeding trout and were somewhat taken aback when told that the farm raised tropical fish from Lake Malawi for the aquarium trade. The point is, aquaculture is a far more diverse activity than many realise, and also includes plants raised in water, as well as ‘aquaponics’, the culture of mutually beneficial fish and plants.

Scale ranges from small backyard set-ups to medium-size systems, often using tunnels to warm the water during winter, to full-scale commercial ventures producing many tons of fish. Some ssystems comprise more than 100 hothouse tunnels. Others have many hectares of ponds, although such farms are rare in Southern Africa.

Trout

The highly organised trout industry has been in existence in South Africa for more than 50 years. Many of the older trout farms are well known, and have been re-built several times over the decades as techniques have changed and evolved. Most are to be found in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Mpumalanga Highveld, all places where the cool water required for the fish is to be found. There are still openings for new trout farms, though, but marketing the product needs to be well-researched beforehand.

Catfish

Our indigenous sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) enjoyed a brief period of ‘popularity’ during the 1980s when in-depth research into its culture was undertaken at Rhodes University and elsewhere. Many catfish farms were established, including a number of hi-tech set-ups imported from Europe – the infamous mega-fish systems. Most were expensive failures, and catfish farming never caught on. The main reason appeared to be marketing – or a lack thereof.

Catfish are very desirable food fish in countries such as Nigeria, whereas they aren’t highly regarded here. Local consumers needed to be ‘educated’, which didn’t happen. Ornamental fish farming, meanwhile, has typically been a small-scale industry, and is regarded by some scientists as the ‘Cinderella’ of aquaculture, with much potential. I’m not sure why.

Maybe it has something to do with that ‘machismo need’ to boast of the ‘tonnage’ produced, rather than its monetary value.

Several farms were set up in the 1990s, and most still exist. However, in times of recession, ornamental fish are regarded as a luxury, and this side of the industry is hard-pressed.

Tilapia

As regular readers of this column will know, tilapia has probably been one of the most talked about, yet least visible forms of fish farming in SA. For years, tilapia farmers here worked with poor quality fingerlings of mixed sex grown under unsuitable, often cool-water pond conditions using methods that had already failed elsewhere. Scant attention was paid to the advances in tilapia culture made in countries such as Israel and Taiwan, where nutritional requirements, sex reversal techniques and intensive culture systems were developed.
This information is now readily available and, with highly desirable fish like red tilapia, there’s no reason why tilapia culture should not be undertaken at many levels – from the backyard operator producing a few hundred kilos a year, to the commercial production of many tons. It’s also an activity suited to incorporation into other farm activities, thus diversifying your output.

Nicholas James is an ichthyologist and hatchery owner. Contact him at farmersweekly@caxton.co.za. Please state ‘Aquaculture’ in the subject line of your email