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The “Aquatic Chicken” May be Appealing, but Environmental Costs Must be Considered

Chances are, you’ve heard of tilapia. It’s served in the cafeteria and in hospitals and schools around the country due to its bland, non-fishy taste.

Last year, the United States ate 475 million pounds of tilapia. A huge percentage of that was frozen and imported from China. With the American Heart Association advocating that Americans eat fish twice a week, it’s no surprise that tilapia’s demand has increased.

Tilapia has been deemed the “aquatic chicken.” It reproduces quickly, grows to full size in about nine months and can tolerate high population density. Thus it has become one of the world’s most popular farmed fish.

But at what cost? The number of fisheries across the world is increasing as demand rises. Though the United States has regulations controlling fish farming, only about five percent of the tilapia we consume is domestically raised. Many of the fisheries that supply our tilapia operate in Latin America and China, which have both been deemed less than “best choices” by Seafood Watch.

Tilapia is an extremely invasive species due to its quick reproduction rate and fast growth. One farming cage in a lake can deplete that lake’s ecosystem, creating less species diversity and pollution, and decreasing the environmental quality of the lake overall.

It’s questionable why we even like this fish so much. Yes, it contains lean protein like all fish do, but it is significantly low in omega-3 fatty acids, which is the whole reason we’re told to eat fish in the first place. Farmed fish contain even less of these nutrients, since they are fed a mostly soy-based diet. If tilapia doesn’t have the nutritional value of other, more sustainable fish, then why eat it?

Well, put simply, it’s cheap. It’s cheap because countries such as China allow farming practices that encourage huge yields without any environmental regulation. It’s cheap because American consumers are willing to eat imported, frozen, hormone-ridden fish from the other side of the world.

Until environmental regulations and restrictions are put in place on a global scale, we need to be more aware as consumers. Finding out a fish’s origin or whether it’s deemed a “best choice” by Seafood Watch is an easy way to ensure that we’re engaging in practices that won’t destroy marine ecosystems. It may seem like a lot to ask, but would you really be that upset if you didn’t eat a bland, nutrition-deficient piece of fish flesh for dinner tonight?

4 Comments on The “Aquatic Chicken” May be Appealing, but Environmental Costs Must be Considered

  1. John Davis // May 18, 2011 at 8:01 AM // Reply

    How come you don’t point out in your article that Tilapia has become so popular because it helps to solves the worlds starvation issues. Is high reproductivity and tolerance of poor water conditions can allow it to thrive and provide protein for those who are struggling to have enough protein in their diets. Fish is not solely consumed for the Omega-3 fatty acids, it is also consumed for protein, of which Tilapia is a very good source.
    Just thought I’d throw that out there for your consideration.

    • Heidi R Johnson // May 18, 2011 at 2:00 PM // Reply

      Ms. Steffenhagen brings new light to the world of tilapia. Thanks for sharing this riveting information with the world. Tonight, instead of eating the invasive fish that will give me little health benefits, I will indulge in the Chinese Giant Salamander or perhaps the Ganges Shark (known for its nutrient rich oil used in delicious and healthy soups). Unlike tilapia, these creatures do not do harm to their environment by recklessly over-producing. Tilapia are irresponsible creatures that do not think about their impact on my more valuable life. That is why I choose to eat Giant Salamanders and Ganges Sharks. In fact, these two species are actually naturally allowing themselves to die out, leaving more space and resources for myself.

    • This is true, however in most of the countries that need a solution to this problem, the fish is exported out of the country into the U.S. (which is the largest consumer of the fish), defeating the purpose. If the demand within the U.S. changes to sustainable seafood, the world market will adjust accordingly. Also, it is not hard to implement safe, environmentally-sound breeding habits that still encourage large harvests.

  2. A useful tool for supporting sustainable seafood!
    Text the name of the fish (e.g. TUNA) to 30644, and receive information via text message on the classification of the fish from Seafood Watch.

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The “Aquatic Chicken” May be Appealing, but Environmental Costs Must be Considered