Beware the peddlers of fake news in aquaculture!

It’s time to expose the urban legend that South Africa is too cold for tilapia farming, even in outdoor ponds.

Beware the peddlers of fake news in aquaculture!
SA rivers: red indicates minimum water temperature >12°C in winter.
Photo: Nicholas James

The term ‘fake news’ first appeared two years ago and was rapidly made popular by US President Donald Trump. Before then, inaccurate or dishonest reporting was termed propaganda or lies.

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Two of the most insidious ways in which untruths are spread, and in time become ‘fact’, is by stating an issue in apparently reasonable, considered, factual terms, and then disseminating it through the Internet so that the original source becomes lost and untraceable.

Thus, a fact claimed by someone who is, for example, softly spoken, modest and from a traditionally innocent grouping such as ‘nuns’ or ‘the poor’ is put out as undeniable fact. That is political fake news.

The lie about tilapia
Unfortunately, fake news in aquaculture is also prevalent today. A good example is the now notorious urban legend that ‘South Africa is too cold for tilapia culture, especially in outdoor ponds’.

When such a comment was posed to Professor Abdel El-Sayed, doyen of tilapia culture at Alexandria University in Egypt, he could not believe his ears. Winter water temperatures in Egypt often drop to 12°C and at times touch 10°C, which is lower than in many parts of South Africa.

Yet Egypt boasts an annual tilapia production of more than 750 000t.

The Limpopo Lowveld, the Incomati corridor and the northern coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal all have winter water temperatures above 15°C. It is simply untrue that this country is too cold for tilapia.

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Another example of fake news in aquaculture is that ‘the growth advantage of the improved strains of Nile tilapia provides only marginal benefits over that of indigenous Mozambique tilapia’. This is again untrue, as proven widely by statistics in the literature.

A further example of fake news is that ‘South African anglers and fish farmers are responsible for the invasion of Nile tilapia in our rivers’. This ignores the fact that we share large rivers with neighbouring countries.

Who, then, are the proponents of fake news in aquaculture? In South Africa, they fall into three categories. The first is the consultant, keen to push a particular system design or fish species, who stands to gain financially by discrediting the alternatives.

The second is the government official who, in lacking specific technical knowledge, simply repeats the urban legend and puts it out as fact, which in time becomes policy.

The third is the person with a political agenda who stands to gain by discrediting a section of the community.

Thus the trout sector, for example, is singled out as being ‘elitist’ or ‘colonial’ in an attempt to curry favour with distinct political or environmental groups, in terms of the perceived biological and linked social negatives.

READ Understanding the great trout debate

More invasive fish such as bass and carp are conveniently ignored, as are the multitude of environmental factors affecting our environment that have nothing to do with trout.

Fake news is not an opinion or a viewpoint. It is an untruth put out as fact.