(Michael Berrill, oceanactions.com)
Let’s hear it for tilapia.
Tilapia fillets are firm, mild, high in protein, and low in total and saturated fats. Tilapia aquaculture is the world’s third biggest, after carp and salmon. Since you may not be eating carp (it’s mainly a Chinese market), and you may have concerns about eating salmon (mercury contamination, along with the use of fish meal to feed the cultured fish), tilapia may be the way to go when you want to eat fish.
There are a bunch of tilapia species, living in fresh, brackish and even salt water, but the most likely farmed species are Nile and Blue. They grow quickly, and to a reasonable size, and they are mainly herbivores, or perhaps opportunistic omnivores. They normally eat algae and detritus, along with the various invertebrates they come across.
They are now raised in fish ponds in many parts of the world, anywhere it’s warm, in what is called ‘extensive’ aquaculture. They are also raised in high density in tanks with recirculating water in ‘intensive’ aquaculture, where they are then fed high-protein pellets that are usually soymeal-based to help them grow more quickly. The tilapia that are produced are heavier than the amount of food pellets they are fed, and the fish are more valuable than the cost of raising them: the culture of the fish is sustainable. You can’t say these things about salmon, cod, tuna or shrimp aquaculture.
Is fish meal included in the food pellets? In some commercial products it still is, but it doesn’t need to be, and it shouldn’t be. Even in the remaining cases where it is included, it is a small percentage of the total protein. And new plant protein sources are emerging, for instance peas instead of soybeans.
Tilapia raised in ponds forage mainly on plants like duckweed, which grows unreasonably quickly. In fact, tilapia have been introduced in many places not for food, but to keep duckweed and other aquatic plants under control, and even to keep algae levels low in reservoir water.
Right, I hear you say, but Tilapia doesn’t taste as good a salmon or shrimp. Well, I agree. But these are hard times for our planet, and they are getting harder, and eating tilapia instead of carnivorous fish and shrimp is a positive, helpful act. The fact that you aren’t eating heavy metals such as mercury, along with other contaminants, doesn’t hurt you either. As well, small pelagic herring type fish are not being caught to feed the fish you eat.
For all of these reasons, Seafood Watch, out of Monterrey Bay Aquarium, recommends tilapia farmed in the US as a ‘Best Choice’, and tilapia from Central America as a ‘Good Alternative’. However, it suggests that we still ‘Avoid’ tilapia farmed in China or Taiwan, for the farmers there use a lot of fungicides and bacteriocides to keep their fish healthy, but potentially contaminated, so check out where your tilapia comes from.
Relatively speaking, then, tilapia are a logical food for us to eat instead of farmed salmon or shrimp. And instead of wild caught fish that are endangered or threatened, like many of the tuna species.
Still not convinced? Many chefs say the sauce is all that matters anyway!