In the late 20th century, the momentum in freshwater aquaculture development moved to Southeast Asia, with carp, milkfish and shrimp farms becoming commonplace. These were later superseded by tilapia and Pangasius.
Tilapia, in particular, took off in the 1990s with the almost universal replacement of all other species by Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) in commercial production.
It soon became the gold standard of commercial production, and before long, the fastest-growing strains were imported from Egypt and West Africa and subjected to further improvement.
The World Fish Centre in the Philippines inaugurated research to improve the growth rate, body shape and disease resistance of these strains.
Skilled ichthyologists used extensive facilities to propagate large numbers of fingerlings, which were then distributed to pond farmers throughout the Philippines.
Once grown, the best specimens were returned to the centre for further performance selection, and subsequent redistribution.
This process resulted in growth improvements of over 30%, and ongoing developments have resulted in a fish that now grows 60% better than the original strain.
The genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) has now passed the ninth generation, and is still being improved in the Far East.
Developmental research has spread to countries such as Thailand, Israel and Indonesia, which also produce their own improved strains, based on the already much-improved GIFT strains.
This enormous coordinated effort has spawned a worldwide tilapia industry based on the Nile tilapia, and all serious commercial producers now uses it.
When a choice of tilapia species is raised, a colleague of mine often poses the question: why enter a race with a donkey, when a racehorse is available? It’s a no-brainer.
Enter South Africa. We are not the only African country with species of tilapia other than Nile tilapia. Nor are we the only African country with indigenous tilapia species whose conservation status is threatened.
Yet, we are the only African country with the infrastructure suitable for substantial commercial tilapia culture, where use of the best species is being actively discouraged by government.
A belated effort to develop a ‘commercial strain’ of Mozambique tilapia is now being proposed. Not only is this a waste of time, effort and money, but the scale at which it is being proposed is so ludicrously small that nothing will be achieved.
Yet, government agencies are intent on utilising woefully inadequate facilities, with poorly trained staff, to try to replicate the efforts of the World Fish programme in the 1980s and 1990s. To what end?
To succeed, the project requires a fish that already has the potential, and has been bred and selected for over a long period.
Nile tilapia was the best commercial prospect in 1980, and still is. Mozambique tilapia, with its large, unattractive head and mouth, rapid onset of maturity, poor body shape and slow growth, is not even a starting point.
Reinventing this wheel of failure will keep South Africa trapped in the backwaters of aquaculture.