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Tilapia Profile

By Dan Burden, International and Special Projects, Extension Value-added Agriculture and AgMRC, Iowa State University, djburden@iastate.edu.

Revised and additions June 2012 by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center,
glutz@agcenter.lsu.edu; additional revisions and additions August 2014 by Dan Burden.



Tilapia (til ah pe ah), is the second most important group of farmed fish after carp and the most widely grown of any farmed fish on the planet. It is farmed in at least 85 countries, with most imports coming from Asia (China and Indonesia) and Latin America (Honduras, Ecuador and Costa Rica).

The global supply of farmed tilapia surged in the 1990s and early 2000s, largely due to the widespread introduction of improved tilapia breeds, increased feed availability, the effective management of reproduction through sex reversal and hybridization, and expansion of consumer markets throughout the world.

According to the National Fisheries Institute, tilapia now ranks fourth on its “Top Ten” list of the most consumed fish and seafood in the United States. During 2010, the average consumption of tilapia was nearly 1.5 pounds, up from 1.2 pounds per person the previous year. In 2012 the FAO World Aquaculture production principal species report listed world Nile Tilapia (Oriochromis niloticus) production at 3,197,330 metric tons valued at $5,260,695,000 USD. When related species are included with Nile tilapia, world production is estimated at 4,507,000 metric tons valued at $1,699/metric ton.

Wild Tilapia

Tilapia are hardy and prolific fast-growing tropical fish. They can live more than 10 years and reach a weight of over 10 pounds, but depending on environmental conditions some species can reach maturity at less than a quarter of a pound. Although tilapia can live in either fresh or salt water, most species are unable to survive at temperatures below 50°F.

Tilapia were originally found throughout the African continent and much of the Middle East, in shallow, turbid waters of rivers and lakes. They are herbivores feeding mainly on plankton, filamentous algae, aquatic macrophytes and other vegetable matter. As a result, tilapia tend to not accumulate pollutants and other toxins in their bodies as do fish that feed on other fish (bio-accumulating toxins that are in the prey) or are bottom-feeding scavengers(who acquire toxins from sediment and or contaminated food material). If water temperatures are favorable, wild tilapia spawn throughout the year with females producing up to 1,200 eggs per spawn. Some species deposit the eggs; others are “mouth brooders,” harboring and protecting the small fry in their mouths if danger threatens. Mouth-brooding species tend to lay fewer eggs but may have higher survival rates.  All of the most widely farmed species are mouth brooders.

Farmed Tilapia

Currently, tilapia are produced in the United States in outdoor ponds as well as indoor systems for sale as live food fish to the restaurant and supermarket trade. In most areas of the southern U.S., tilapia production in outside facilities is strictly regulated to avoid unwanted introductions and environmental damage to native fresh-water systems, particularly to sport-fishing resources.

Under culture conditions, brood stock are held onsite and spawned to produce eggs. Under ideal conditions, females may spawn every seventeen days. The eggs and resulting fry are maintained at a temperature of 80°F to 84°F. The pH is maintained at 7.5 to 7.8, while dissolved oxygen levels should remain at or above 8.0 ppm. Under these conditions, market-sized fish can be obtained in about seven to ten months depending on stocking density.

Within the past few years there has been an increase in water-circulating closed-system tank production of tilapia in aquaculture or aquaponic systems. Tilapia is a particularly good candidate for aquaponics where the toxic nitrogenous waste of the fish is converted to plant-usable nitrogen using biofilters. Plant uptake of this fertilized water then removes the remaining nitrogen content and the clean water is returned to the fish tank. Aquaponics can produce both fish protein and plants in a very confined or limited space. Since tilapia have a very efficient feed-to-protein feed-conversion ratio, grow very quickly and can be “crowed” in very high populations within the fish-tank part of the system, they are one of the best candidates for aquaponic production. Brood stock and hobbyist and classroom to commercial-production off-the-shelf systems are available from a number of suppliers.


As of 2005 (the last Census of Aquaculture conducted by the USDA), 156 farms in the United States cultured tilapia, reporting total sales of $31.3 million. Most of this production reaches the market as a live product destined for Asian and Hispanic consumers. While the largest number of tilapia farms were located in Hawaii (19 farms) and Florida (18 farms), California (15 farms) ranked first in sales (over $8.1 million). Idaho ranked second, reporting over $1.5 million in sales from seven farms. However, data from some states with very high production but very few operations were not available due to reporting concerns related to confidentiality (NASS 2006)

Of these farms, the largest number (128) reared foodsize tilapia, reporting total sales of $29.6 million. Many of these were situated in Hawaii (18 farms), California (15 farms) and Florida (12 farms). Other tilapia farms specialized in fingerlings, fry and broodstock (NASS 2006). The industry still fits this general profile today, but the number of smaller recirculating-system based operations in the Midwest and Northeast has declined due to significant cost increases for feed, as well as competition from larger producers, who can generally sell at reduced prices due to economies of scale.

Although worldwide production of tilapia was expected to total 3.7 million metric tons (MT) during 2010, the reported total was 3.5 million MT (roughly 7.7 billion pounds). Growth in production appeared to be accelerating at that time. The total reported value of global tilapia production increased from $203 million in 1985 to $5.7 billion in 2010, reflecting not only the staggering growth in volume of production but also an increase in (world-wide) pond-bank value from $0.44 to $0.74 per pound. Of course, the bulk of this production involves smaller fish for local or regional markets, but large fish destined for global fillet markets in the United States, Europe and Asia can command as much as $1.50 per pound at harvest, and live tilapia have been valued at $3 per pound or more in the United States and Europe in recent years. By 2015, world production is forecast to reach 4.6 – 5.0 million MT. (FAO 2010) 

Imports of tilapia into the United States have grown steadily over the past several decades, as consumers became more familiar with the product and its adaptability to North American culinary preferences. As the global tilapia industry has grown, so has the number of product forms, most all of which are imported. Today, fresh or frozen fillets are available in different sizes and packages, as skin-on, skin-off, deep skinned, individually quick frozen, smoked and sashimi grade, and treated by carbon monoxide or ozone dipped. Interesting byproducts have emerged such as leather goods for clothing and accessories, gelatin from skins for time-released medicines and flower ornaments made from dried and colored fish scales. For U.S. producers, production costs preclude competing with virtually all of these imported product forms, resulting in a need to focus on live markets be they large (as in New York, California or Toronto) or small (as in niche markets serving ethnic communities in various parts of the country).

Production Costs

In a University of Florida operational analysis, a model business analysis suggested that a small-scale, outdoor pond tilapia culture facility could be profitable. Positive average annual net returns and a cash flow that is positive throughout a five-year planning horizon supported this conclusion. Given the assumptions concerning yield, harvest size, market prices and per-unit input costs, the hypothetical six-acre tilapia culture facility required an initial investment of $65,850 and generated $40,259 in annual operating costs, yielding $29,221 in net returns during an average year. However, variables including market price, feed costs, survival rates, technical ability, geographic location of the facility, prevailing market conditions and additional factors including other input prices and stocking densities were also shown to potentially influence profits. Given the increase in feed costs over the past decade, productivity would have to improve for this model facility to maintain profitability.

Lutz (2000) examined the comparative production costs of U.S. tilapia operations (open ponds, greenhouse facilities and enclosed indoor tank systems) with those of tropical production facilities and concluded that improved strains and technology would be required to allow for competition in domestic fillet markets. These advances have not been forthcoming, and production costs have increased over the past decade. With the availability of frozen tilapia imports from China, almost all of the tilapia cultured in the United States is sold as a live product to attract the premium price necessary to cover production costs. This situation is not expected to change in the foreseeable future. Producers in the United States must focus on developing markets for live products, improving management and technology for recirculating aquaculture production, and managing procurement (fingerlings and feed) and inventory aspects of their operations.

Imports and Exports

The dollar value of U.S. exports of tilapia have represented a very small fraction of the value of imports in recent years (DOC 2012). According to the Department of Commerce, tilapia imports to the United States in 2011 totaled 192,900 MT (a decrease of 11 percent from 2010), valued at $838.4 million, down only slightly from the previous year (DOC 2012).

The U.S. tilapia import market is split into the frozen and the fresh segments. Frozen fillet volume continues growing strongly, while whole frozen product has remained fairly constant due to a limited market. In 2011, primary suppliers of frozen fillets to the United States were China ($522 million) and Indonesia ($60 million). China ($50 million) and Taiwan ($26 million) account for almost all imports of frozen whole fish. When production declines in China and Taiwan occur due to unseasonably cold winter temperatures or problems with disease outbreaks, frozen product supplies to North American markets are reduced, and prices generally increase accordingly.

The fresh fillet sector, dominated by Latin American countries, is still experiencing growth in demand, especially from restaurants and supermarkets. In 2010, Honduras surpassed Ecuador as the primary supplier of imported fresh tilapia fillets, in spite of the temporary idling of its second largest operation. In 2011, major suppliers of fresh fillets to U.S. markets included Honduras ($62 million), Ecuador ($50 million) and Colombia ($18 million). (ERS 2012)


The popularity of tilapia in the United States remained unaffected during the economic recession although overall consumption of fish products fell by 1.3 percent in 2009. For tilapia, however, consumption increased slightly. As quality controls (off-flavor management) become stricter in major exporting countries, market share for tilapia will probably increase even further in the U.S. However, tilapia is becoming increasingly popular in many European countries, and some portion of the supply traditionally destined for the United States may be diverted in the future to Europe and other markets.

Imports of tilapia products have become a mainstay in the U.S. foodservice and restaurant sectors, where the reasonably priced, mild fish has provided an easy way to add a seafood item to menus. The questions for the U.S. tilapia industry are how best to avoid competing with growing foreign production and how to determine which market segments are most favorable for domestic producers supplying live, locally grown product.


Aquaculture Data, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.

Census of Aquaculture (2005), National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA, 2006.

U.S. Imports and Exports of Tilapia, ERS, USDA.

Imports and Exports of Fishery Products 2011, Fisheries Statistics Division, NMFS, 2012.

Tilapia Market Report, Globefish, FAO, UN, 2011.

Tilapia Market Report, Globefish, FAO, UN,  2012 - Worldwide production of tilapia was predicted to reach 3.7 million metric tons during 2010.

World Supply and Demand of Tilapia, Globefish, FAO, UN, 2010.

Aquatic Community - Oreochromis niloticus tilapia page that has links top and descriptions of the related species and strains.

World Fishery Production by Species Group - FAO

World Aquaculture Production - fish, crustaceans, molluscs, etc., by principal species in 2012 - FAO

Links checked: August 2014.


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