Tilapia: Myths & legends

Misconceptions are holding back production of tilapia in South Africa. In the meantime, the rest of the world simply gets on with it.

What to avoid: high capital outlay, high running cost, and high-risk equipment when the sun is a free alternative!
Photo: Nicolas James

I am often asked to supply ‘breeding pairs’ of tilapia by people wanting to start a fish farming project. Even some of those who have already invested substantially in grow-out facilities make this strange request. Tilapia breeding is not done using pairs. I am also frequently told that “all the filtration has been correctly designed, and is in place, ready for the fish”. Yet, on enquiry, I tend to find that the filtration is little more than a basic swimming pool or koi pond-type filter – totally inadequate for aquaculture.

All of this demonstrates the low level of general knowledge about aquaculture displayed by the general public. What is more serious, though, is that it is evident amongst many self-proclaimed aquaculture ‘experts’. Since this column first appeared in Farmer’s Weekly in September 2012, many of the 600 or so enquiries I have received have been from newcomers to the industry.

Often, these are people who have land and want to try a small fish-farming venture for extra income. In some cases, larger ventures are proposed, some of which have come to fruition. A recurring phenomenon is that of people being taken for a ride by charlatans who claim to be ‘in the know’ and then sell them untried and often complex technology. The capital needed for all this technology – which has no place in African aquaculture – combined with its running costs, frequently results in such projects folding.

Lack of reliability
One example are those systems that heat large volumes of water using heat-pumps. The high running costs and unreliability of such equipment make these systems entirely unsuitable – never mind the fact that sunshine can be harnessed for free by using simple greenhouse technology. As for filtration, I have yet to see a recirculating tilapia grow-out unit in South Africa that has filtration capable of producing large quantities of fish and remaining reliable. Blindly depending on machinery like this, installed by a long-since- departed ‘expert’, can leave a farmer vulnerable to a financial wipe-out if things go wrong.

Get it right before you start
The myth that a tilapia farmer must have the latest First World technology to be effective is only one of the urban legends that bedevil local aquaculture, and that need debunking. They include the belief that tilapia farming without Nile tilapia is a waste of time. Not true!  Another is that projects that produce less than 50t/ year are uneconomic. Again, untrue.

And finally, the myth that cheap tilapia from China makes local production pointless. This is simply not true. Step one for prospective tilapia farmers should be to gather accurate information before investing in aquaculture. Yes, it can be difficult to differentiate between smooth-talking salespeople only concerned about their bank balances and those who have the interests of aquaculture at heart. So don’t believe everything you hear, get several opinions on the matter and read as widely as possible on the subject.

Nicholas James is an ichthyologist and hatchery owner.