“Here, try this.”
I had just started dating this guy when he handed me a plate of salty, crispy fried fish bits, which he cooked himself.
I’m not a big fish eater, but I felt compelled to give it a try. I mean, the guy spent the whole afternoon scaling fish and risking his life with a deep fryer for me, obviously in an effort to impress me, so I should at least be polite.
And I was pleasantly surprised – not only by his cooking skills, but by the fish itself. The white meat was firm and flaky and tasted mild, if any.
“What kind of fish is this?” I asked, through a bite of fish and rice.
“Tilapia,” he replied.
I stopped chewing. Tilapia. The fish that lives in the Ala Wai channel. The one that if we ever caught him, we’d fire him and maybe wash our hands afterwards. This is what I ate?
Not enough. It turns out that the species of tilapia that occupies the murky channel – the black-chinned tilapia or Sarotherodon melanotheron – was imported by the state in the 1950s as live baitfish for the fishing industry. with tuna.
The guy – now my husband – had fried a Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) that he had grown in an aquaponics setup in his backyard. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture – growing fish or other aquatic animals – and hydroponics – growing plants without soil – in a symbiotic system where water from fish effluent is used to grow vegetables .
This is not unlike the native Hawaiian practice of loko i’a kalo, where fish were raised in wetland taro patches.
The beauty of this, he would later boast, is that you can grow both vegetables and protein in a system compact enough to fit in your garden or even your porch. Talk about food security.
I’ll be honest: if he had told me in advance that he would serve me tilapia for dinner, I might have faked a migraine. Like many locals, I grew up associating cichlid fish with disgusting habitats. And if you are what you eat, I wouldn’t eat a tilapia from a muddy canal.
But the tilapia that my husband farmed — and continues to help other aquaculture farms raise as an extension worker with Hawaii Sea Grant — don’t live in dirty environments or eat nasty microalgae. Rather, these fish are fed mostly vegetarian diets and live in clean tanks and ponds, making them one of the tastiest fish.
You do not believe me ? Ask James Beard Award-winning chef Alan Wong, who once served this fish alongside mahi mahi and opakapaka at a 2009 dinner party at his Honolulu restaurant. Most guests picked tilapia as their favorite, and Wong often featured tilapia — grown at a fish farm on Oahu’s North Shore — on his menu.
Tilapia is the second-highest-growing fish in the world, behind carp, and the third-highest-growing fish in the United States, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, behind catfish and striped bass.
Tilapia is one of the most popular seafood choices for American consumers – we ate 1.07 pounds per person per year in 2020, behind only canned shrimp, salmon and tuna – and you can find this fish in grocery stores and restaurants across the country.
Not so much in Hawaii.
But hopefully that will change, because eating locally farmed tilapia (or any seafood) would help the state’s food security goal and reduce pressures on the world’s oceans.
According to a compelling study published in the journal Science in 2006, a team of international conservationists and economists concluded that all species of wild seafood – from tuna to sardines – will collapse by 2048, citing overfishing and climate change as threats. (“Collapse” is defined as a depletion of 90% of the species’ baseline abundance.)
“Unless we fundamentally change how we manage all ocean species together as functioning ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood,” said co-author Stephen Palumbi, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University in a press release.
It’s scary to think about, especially if you like ahi or mahi mahi, both of which are advised to be avoided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. (Tilapia caught or raised in the United States is on its list of top picks.)
Tilapia, as a sustainable food source, has a lot to offer. The fish grow rapidly and tolerate a variety of water quality and salinity environments. The feed conversion rate—essentially the number of pounds of feed needed to make 1 pound of animal—is about 1.5 for fish. (By comparison, the number of cattle is between 6 and 10, which means it takes 6 to 10 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of beef.)
Tilapias are omnivorous and can eat 100% vegetable protein, which is better for the environment. And you don’t need to use fossil fuels to catch them, if they are stored in tanks or ponds. Eating locally grown foods – including fish – is also better for Hawaii.
We still import about 85% of what we eat from the mainland, and according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, about 63% of all seafood eaten in Hawaii is also imported. And there are more than a dozen Hawaiian farms raising tilapia for consumption, including Kunia Country Farms and Alii Agriculture Farms on Oahu and Kohala Mountain Fish Co. on the island of Hawaii.
So why not eat farmed tilapia in Hawaii? It’s simple: stigma — but one that can be changed with education and a willingness to try something different.
So the next time you see farmed tilapia on the menu, don’t panic. Try it. You might change your mind. I did it. I even married the guy afterwards.