If you count yourself as one of the many (or few) who are aware of as well as disciplined about, your seafood choices, you might walk into a restaurant or a fish market with a little cheat sheet giving you some guidance as to what fish is best to buy.
The concern is not so much cost, as it is environmental, as well as health, concerns, and organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch have been directing virtuous consumers toward “better choices” of fish for over a decade. If you have one of their cards (or apps on your smart phone) you no doubt are familiar with the cheap and ubiquitous fish Tilapia. This is because Tilapia, while not being the most flavorful or alluring of fish, tends to be a cheap form of farmed fish protein that isn’t over-fished and isn’t brimming with mercury and PCBs, therefore Tilapia is becoming one of the most popular forms of fish in the United States and is often compared to chicken for its cheap accessibility.
According to information from the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2010, more than 52 million pounds of fresh tilapia were exported to the United States, mostly from Latin America, as well as 422 million more pounds of frozen tilapia, both whole and fillet, nearly all from China. Despite its commercial origins, tilapia is a freshwater species originating from Africa. But despite its humble African origins, Tilapia has become quite the global cash crop because it provides food and jobs in a world of declining fish stocks and rising population, and its dominance will only continue to grow.
The fish breeds easily, tolerates crowding, and does not require expensive feed (it will happily subside off corn and soy feed) and because of this, Tilapia is defined as the ultimate low maintenance aquatic protein source. But tilapia is also one of the most invasive species in the water, and extremely difficult to get rid of once they break free from their fish farm pens and become established in our waterways. Wild tilapia (AKA tilapia that were introduced into non-native habitats) have aggressively squeezed out native species in lakes throughout the world with its rampant breeding and feeding. In addition, tilapia farming (much of which is done in unregulated markets, such as China and Nicaragua) is often conducted without much concern or care given to the environment (also, there has been significant chatter about tilapia farming being inextricably linked to money laundering and drug dealings in Latin America).
In addition, farmed tilapia, although a lean source of protein, relatively low in mercury, may not be all that nutritionally good for you. According to The New York Times, compared with other fish, farmed tilapia contains relatively small amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, the fish oils that are the main reasons doctors recommend eating fish frequently; salmon has more than 10 times the amount of tilapia. Also, farmed tilapia contains a less healthful mix of fatty acids because the fish are fed corn and soy instead of lake plants and algae, the diet of wild tilapia. Still, compared to red meat or chicken, which have absolutely no omega-3 fatty acids, Tilapia holds its appeal.
No doubt, as tilapia increases in both demand and popularity, standards and quality will plummet – leaving us with a cheap fish that may not be healthy for anyone or anything. Still, in the ever-shrinking pool of sustainable and healthy seafood options, tilapia is one of the better choices in the water.
What is your feeling about tilapia and fish farming practices? Are fish farms a practical way to solve, or lessen, the global over-fishing problem? Is tilapia a viable protein alternative to salmon, tuna, and the like? Does anyone out there actually like tilapia? If so, recipes would be appreciated by all.