Revised March 2022
Tilapia is the third most important group of farmed fish on the planet after carps and catfishes. Geographically speaking it is the most widely grown of any farmed fish, with aquaculture production in at least 85 countries. Although there are a number of producers in the U.S., most consumption is based on imports coming from Asia and Latin America. Global supplies of farmed tilapia surged in the 1990s and early 2000s, largely due to widespread introduction of improved varieties, establishment of new feed mills in developing countries, effective management of reproduction through sex reversal, and expansion of consumer markets in virtually every part of the world. Production volumes are continually increasing globally, although much of the current growth is destined for domestic consumption in developing nations.
Tilapia are a group of closely related freshwater species, but some species and artificially developed varieties can tolerate brackish or salt water. However, these fish are tropical in nature and none are able to survive prolonged temperatures below 46°F. Tilapia were originally found throughout the African continent and much of the Middle East, in shallow, turbid waters of rivers and lakes. They feed mainly on plankton, filamentous algae, detritus and aquatic plants. If water temperatures are favorable, tilapia can spawn throughout the year with larger females producing 1000 or more eggs per spawn. All of the major farmed tilapia species and artificial varieties are “mouth brooders,” harboring and protecting their eggs and newly hatched fry in their mouths.
Tilapia are produced in the U.S. in both outdoor ponds or tanks and indoor recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), usually for sale as live food fish. In some areas of the southern U.S., tilapia production in outdoor facilities is strictly regulated to avoid unwanted introductions and environmental impacts to native freshwater habitats, particularly to sport-fishing resources. Nonetheless, in spite of decades of widespread pond culture in several states no significant establishment of introduced populations has occurred outside of Florida.
Although some operations rely on purchasing fry and fingerlings from outside suppliers, in many cases brood stock are held onsite and spawned to produce eggs and fry on a regular schedule. Under ideal conditions, females may spawn every seventeen days. Eggs are incubated naturally by the female breeders or artificially in hatching jars or trays, and optimum temperatures for fry production range from 80°F to 84°F. Stocking densities and feeding practices are determined by the production system being used, as well as prevailing environmental conditions.
Marketable size tilapia can usually be obtained in ten- to twelve months, but many regions of the southern U.S. will have no more than a 7-month growing season in outdoor ponds, requiring indoor fingerling production and nursery operations during the winter months. Outdoor ponds must be harvested by late fall to avoid losses from sudden cold fronts, and this complicates marketing arrangements since large volumes must be moved over a short period of time, only once each year. In contrast, indoor tank systems are managed to produce marketable fish on a weekly or monthly basis, and so are much more suited for the types of local niche markets that seek out fresh products.
As of 2018 (the last Census of Aquaculture conducted by the USDA), 137 farms in the U.S. cultured tilapia, reporting total sales of $39.4 million. Twenty-seven states reported farmed tilapia production in 2018. The largest number of tilapia farms were located in Florida (17 farms), Ohio (16), Hawaii (12) and Texas (12). Although California reported only 9 farms, it appeared to rank first in sales with almost $12.2 million reported but data from some states with high production and few operations were not available due to reporting limits related to confidentiality.
Of the 137 farms reporting in the 2018 census, 100 produced food-size tilapia, reporting total sales of $37.9 million. The average size at harvest was 1.4 lb. and the average farm-gate price was $2.63 per lb. An additional $1.4 million in sales was reported as tilapia fingerlings, fry and brood stock. The RAS sector of the industry includes a number of smaller operations in the Midwest and Northeast as well as several larger producers that generally transport and sell large volumes at reduced prices due to economies of scale. Throughout the country, entrepreneurs have converted agricultural facilities previously used for hogs, dairy cattle and even tobacco into viable indoor tilapia farms. In some western states, including California, a number of tilapia operations rely on warm geothermal water supplies to raise fish in ponds and tanks. And in the southern U.S. producers utilize a combination of outdoor grow-out ponds and indoor spawning and nursery tanks.
U.S. tilapia consumption grew steadily for several decades as consumers became more familiar with the product and its adaptability to North American culinary preferences. Consumption peaked in the 2010’s but volumes have declined in recent years as a combined result of negative and misleading publicity on social media and increased demand and consumption in other countries. According to the National Fisheries Institute, in 2019 tilapia ranked fifth among the most consumed fish and seafood products in the U.S. Average consumption was 0.98 lb., a 12 percent decrease from the fish’s fourth place ranking the previous year.
In the U.S., Europe and other developed nations, imported fresh or frozen tilapia fillets are available in different sizes and packages as skin-on, skin-off, deep skinned, individually quick frozen, smoked and sashimi. According to NOAA’s U.S. Trade in Fishery Products website, in 2020 China was by far the leading exporter of tilapia to the U.S., with a reported volume of 133,066,058 kg (293,360,442 lb.) and a value of $343,601,143. Frozen fillets generally make up the bulk of Chinese imports into the U.S., with frozen whole fish accounting for the balance. Colombia, with a mix of fresh fillets and whole gutted fish, was the number two exporter of tilapia products to the U.S. in 2020, with 12,091,870 kg (26,658,010 lb.) valued at $67,347,337. Other major exporting countries focused on the U.S. fillet market in 2020, either fresh or frozen. In order of both volume and value, they were Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador.
Production costs and economies of scale for U.S. producers preclude competing with virtually any imported product forms, even frozen whole fish, resulting in a need to focus on live markets. Some markets for live fish are quite large (as in New York, California or Toronto) while others involve niche markets serving ethnic, organic or more traditional consumers in various parts of the country. 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 two decades. This situation is not expected to change in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the traditional role in many ethnic cultures of older homemakers as the purchasers and preparers of whole live (or fresh) fish is not being taken up by younger generations. Tilapia producers in the U.S. must focus on developing markets for live products by emphasizing the locally-grown and wholesome aspects of their fish, improving management and technology for recirculating aquaculture production, and managing procurement (fingerlings and feed) and inventory aspects of their operations.
The popularity of tilapia in the U.S. has declined somewhat in recent years, but 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 involve product differentiation, avoiding competition with foreign production and other fish, and how to identify and engage market segments favorable to live, locally grown product.
- Greenhouse Tilapia Production LSU AgCenter, 2012.
- Converting Unused Facilities for Aquaculture Converting unused agriculture facilities for aquaculture use: swine barn conversion for fish culture. University of Missouri Extension, 2018.
- Tilapia Production Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, Texas A&M University.
- 2018 USDA sensus of Aquaculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2019
- NFI’s Top 10 List suggests consumers diversifying seafood consumption National Fisheries Institute, 2021
- Tilapia Production Systems Lutz, C.G. 2000. Production economics and potential competitive dynamics of commercial tilapia culture in the Americas. Pages 119–132 in B.A. Costa-Pierce and J.E. Rekocy, eds. Tilapia Aquaculture in the Americas, Vol. 2. The World Aquaculture Society, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.
Revised by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center