The Israeli guest that’s welcome around the world

The Israeli guest that’s welcome around the world

Fast becoming one of the world’s most important fish for food, tilapia, with roots in Israel – and the high-tech farms that raise them – are making a big impact

An indoor fish farm (Photo credit: AquaMaof/Yair Kachel PR)
An indoor fish farm (Photo credit: AquaMaof/Yair Kachel PR)

Once a staple only in gourmet restaurants, amnon, or St. Peter’s Fish  — also known as Israeli (blue) tilapia — is fast becoming one of the most important fish in the world, enabling millions in the Third World, as well as in developed countries, to enjoy tasty, nutritious, and healthy fish. With overfishing becoming a major problem, Israeli fish-farming technology is being welcomed in countries around the world — as are the tilapia fish that are often grown in these farms.

There are nearly 100 tilapia species out there (most of them freshwater fish), and various versions of the fish are common throughout the Middle East; for example, the Nile tilapia (Nile perch), native to Egypt, is farmed there using basic methods, and other species are farmed in Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Tilapia is also wildly popular in the Far East, with China the world’s biggest producer/exporter of the fish. But only Israel has perfected the high-tech methods of fish farming that allow farmers to generate far more fish than with traditional fish-farming methods. Many fish farmers and policy makers say that Israeli tilapia are the tastiest of the bunch.

Tilapia, currently the second-most farmed fish in the world (behind salmon) have come into their own over the past few decades. Whereas 30 years ago, few people had even heard of tilapia, food policy officials in countries around the world have come to recognize that the fish can help solve the overfishing crisis that has become more severe in recent years. Tilapia can survive in warm-water environments, aren’t particularly picky about their food, and survive well in brackish water. They grow quickly in a short period of time, so their bodies have less time to absorb chemicals like mercury, the bane of many fish. And, tilapia are almost tailor-made for raising on farms, as they are easy to breed and raise — allowing policy makers to ensure a definite supply of an important protein source for their country’s populations.

Israeli-raised tilapia were popular long before hi-tech fish farming; they have been introduced into lakes and rivers in a number of countries, including the United States, where almost all the tilapia hail from stocks imported from Israel. In the US, the geographic range of tilapia is limited, because they cannot survive in colder water (below 50 degrees Fahrenheit). Tilapia are considered an invasive species, however, and in some places in the U.S. people who enjoy sport fishing have complained that tilapia tend to corner the resources in an ecology, basically taking over the “neighborhood” by eating many of the plants that provide oxygen (although they generally do not compete for food eaten by other fish). On the other hand, they also eat weeds, algae, and other other “undesirable” underwater plants, keeping rivers and lakes cleaner. In some places, in fact, tilapia are used in reservoirs to keep municipal water supplies clean.

And countries around the world have embraced Israeli tilapia fish-farming systems. Last month, the governments of Kenya, Germany and Israel recently inked a trilateral cooperation agreement to use Israeli hi-tech methods to improve tilapia farming. In Kenya’s Lake Victoria, fish stocks are being depleted even as the demand for fish — and tilapia in particular — continues to increase. Fish prices in Kenya and much of Africa have doubled over the past two years, said Ilan Fluss, director of policy planning and external relations at the Israel Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (Mashav). The new program, he said, will help Kenya “industrialize” its tilapia output, enabling the country to significantly provide better nutrition for residents at lower prices, and to turn Kenya into a tilapia exporter, Fluss added.

But Israeli tilapia-based fish-farming systems are welcome in the “First World” as well. This week, the largest fish farm in Europe — to be used mostly for the production of tilapia — will open in Poland, courtesy of the Israeli company AquaMaof Aquaculture Technologies. The company has developed an innovative farming system that makes it possible to breed fish under controlled temperature conditions in all types of weather, in any country, and during all seasons, independently of external factors — while cutting energy costs by some 70%, the company said. The 8,000-square-meter (24,000-square-foot) facility will produce some 1,200 tons of tilapia annually, said AquaMaof, which has already built similar farms in Africa, the US, and Asia.

With the new system, Poland, too, could become a major fish supplier to the rest of Europe, as catch limits in the European Union are increased, limiting or outright prohibiting the sale of some types of fish, whose stocks are quickly being depleted because of commercial fishing. Thanks to Israeli fish-farming systems — equipped with Israeli tilapia — Europeans will get the fish they crave, while fish still in the ocean will have an opportunity to replenish their stocks.

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