Getting to the truth about tilapia fingerlings
Tilapia fingerlings are everywhere, and so are the companies eager to sell them to you, but who can you trust in the age of the Internet? The anonymity of conducting business online, allows anyone to say whatever they want, even bold-faced lies, without any sense of responsibility or feeling of remorse. Fortunately for you, the person in need of tilapia fingerlings, there is a way for you to steer clear of these liars and get exactly what you need for the lowest possible price. But first, a few words about what motivated me to create this website.
I did not consider myself to be, nor did I set out to become, an expert on the subject of tilapia fingerlings. College educated in ancient code like RPG, COBOL and Basic, I started programming computers in the early 1980's and launched my first website for programmers in 1994 (that's four years before Google was founded). At a time when people were still confounded by the very existence of the Internet, I was already testifying as an expert witness in legal proceedings both for and against web marketers accused of plagiarism and defamation of character. I have assisted in lawsuits involving software copyright violations, reverse-engineering, and most notably to the endeavor of this website, I have been brought in as an expert witness for cases involving false claims made over the Internet and via Email, which caused significant monetary damages to the victim. Back then, when the only social media was an America Online chatroom, most website publishers did their best to provide information that was as accurate as possible. Everyone was outraged when lies were discovered on the "information superhighway".
Of course, today we all get a daily dose of fake news and personal opinions being passed off as facts. Most of the time they let their bias and ulterior motives be known, other times it's a little harder to spot. Fortunately, we've all developed a healthy skepticism towards the things that we find on social media and other reporting sources. But what about when you want to make an online purchase? Now all of a sudden the whole dynamic changes. You are forced to lower your guard and ingest whatever the seller wants you to believe because you want what they are selling. You think that you are doing research, but in reality you're letting someone who wants your money to influence your opinions. If you are familiar with their product, then all you have to do is ignore their sales pitch and buy according to price. However, if their product requires a degree in Marine Biology to fully understand, as is the case with tilapia fingerlings, then finding a trusted source is imperative.
So in the spring of 2014, I was in the market to buy some tilapia fingerlings for our new home aquaponics project. Like you, I found several companies vying for my business. I took a chance and ordered from the first place that caught my eye. Within a few days, I found myself shaking my head and wishing that I had taken a few extra minutes to perform some proper due diligence before I optimistically entered my credit card information. The first and most obvious person to blame for my misfortune, was myself. I knew better, but I got lazy. I just wanted to order my fish and get on with my day. Over the next couple of months, as my wife and I expanded our system, I continued to encounter one creative lie after another.
So why did I start a website about tilapia fingerlings?
When friends ask me that question, I jokingly say that I'm old and retired, but mostly bored. The truth is, working on this site brings me a lot of joy. I have always been an avid learner. I'm one of those people who needs to know everything about anything that interests me. I also enjoy sharing what I've learned. If you really think about it, unless you discovered it for the first time, everything that you know was shared to you by someone else. I spent quite a bit of effort learning everything that I could about tilapia fingerlings, so there's no sense in letting that knowledge die with me. Especially if I can shed some new light on the subject, or explain it in a way that others can better understand.
This website is also my way of pushing back against Internet liars. Not just the ones selling tilapia fingerlings, but a few aquaponics systems and supply companies as well. Telling lies is a mental condition that encompasses every aspect of a person's life. Many people like to sugar-coat these tendencies with more palatable words like "misrepresentations", "creative license", "intentional omissions" or even "free speech" but it's all the same thing. Even words used to artificially inflate the reputation of a company are still designed to deceive the customer, and are therefore bona-fide lies.
When it comes to conducting business, it's important that you rid yourself of any notions that you may have about "big lies" versus "little lies". Successful marketing does not have to be based on creating "low impact" lies. A person who is willing to lie about the small things in an effort to manipulate your opinion or level of confidence is willing to lie to you about anything. If their products are really worthy of your money, then they don't require lies.
So why should you care about the negative side of things? I guess the best answer is because nobody likes getting ripped off. Many of you are raising tilapia fingerlings to feed your family. Like me, some of you have invested large chunks of time and money into your system and are counting on success. You are not a marine biologist. And while you shouldn't expect any dealer of tilapia fingerlings to be a scientist either, you do have the right to expect that they are knowledgeable, or at the very least, truthful.
Truth - backed up with proof
As I've already stated, I did not consider myself to be an expert on the subject of tilapia fingerlings. I am however, skilled at gathering and vetting information. As part of my research into tilapia fingerlings for this website, I communicated with several experts having Ph.D's attached to the ends of their names at places like the Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology, Aqua Animal Health Corp, Vi-Cor, Auburn University, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the University of Maryland, and the University of Florida. Every statement that I make on this site is the result of what I've learned from these people and the resources that they've recommended.
Obviously you don't know me personally so asking you to believe my words just because I've put them on the Internet is no better than what the deceivers are doing. Fortunately for us, there are several 3rd party resources on the Internet that provide proof. For example, archive.org has a free online tool called the "Wayback Machine" that allows anyone to see previous versions of any website. Other resources like "internic.net" and "who.is" can provide website ownership information including historical ownership records for operators who try to hide or use fake names. For facts about fish there's fishbase.de and experts all over the world contribute to fao.org. There are literally dozens of examples, some are free and some require a subscription, but rather than list them all, I'll go one better by posting screen shots of my research taken directly from the tools that I use. That way, you don't have to know me in person to believe what I write, the proof will be sitting right there.
There are some excellent sources of information on the Internet about tilapia fingerlings and aquaponics systems; and the search engine gurus do their very best to bring you the highest quality results possible. Unfortunately, there are also people out there who know how to "game the system" and trick the the search engines into displaying their web sites ahead of the rest; even if their site contains no pertinent information. Those of you who have researched tilapia fingerlings have undoubtedly noticed that many search results are often nothing more than places to spend your money. These sites have only one thing on their mind... your money. And they are willing to say whatever it takes to get you to spend it.
The knowledge needed to successfully raise tilapia fingerlings isn't instinctual or common sense. We all need to learn it from someone else and we depend on web sites to give us accurate information. But far too often, these dealers deliberately steer us in the wrong direction for the sake of profit. They bolster our confidence with self-written customer reviews and phony statements of their fame within the "industry". They use fake copyright dates to give the illusion that they have been in business longer than they actually have, and by inference more successful. Worst of all, they make statements concerning the biology of tilapia fingerlings and aquaponics practices in general that result in serious and expensive problems for growers.
Some of my writings are intended to expose these liars and provide proof of their lies. It's up to you to do the right thing and deny them access to your money. That said, it is not my intention to put anyone out of business. If they clean up their act, I'll update my exposé to reflect their changes. I will not however erase the past. I personally believe that the world is full of dishonest people who wait until they get caught and then try to take credit for suddenly doing the right thing; while everyone else has been doing the right thing all along.
Florida Tilapia Warning
11/1/18 - It has already been reported that Hurricane Irma (9/17) and Hurricane Michael (10/18) caused widespread flooding in the state of Florida. A lot of organisms, molds and bacteria live in the florida wetlands, including Toxic Red Algae (Karenia brevis), Flesh Eating Bacteria (Necrotizing fasciitis), and Brain Eating Amoeba (Naegleria fowleri). These life forms were transported by flooding and are currently infecting many Florida fisheries. Exercise caution and use a little common sense before handling or consuming fresh water fish from a Florida source. I cannot find any reports to suggest that fish in other gulf/east coast states, such as Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina were affected by these events.
7/1/19 - Florida continues to feel the affects of their toxic conditions, suffering $20 million in tourism-related losses. Sarasota County Florida alone reports spending up to $4 million just treating respiratory illness caused by toxic algae in 2018. Tilapia dealers in Florida continue to ship into 45 other states that haven't yet placed restrictions on their fish, while nearly half of their own state has restricted their in-state shipments without obtaining special permission. At this point I am going to up my recommendation from "use caution" to "avoid altogether".
A quick primer about tilapia fingerlings
As I've previously stated, there are already some excellent resources out there about tilapia fingerlings and tilapia farming in general, so I'm not going to waste your time by re-explaining things that have already been taught so well. There are however a few important points that I feel are vastly under-represented on the Internet. So with all due respect to the tilapia experts who have taken the time to teach in their own words, I'd like to offer my own explanations for what I consider to be the most important facts for everyone to understand about tilapia fingerlings.
There are five forms of tilapia
Tilapia fingerlings are available in five forms: As a pure strain, as an improved, as a hybrid, as a genetically engineered, and as a chemically altered fish.
- Pure strain are genetically pure from a single species. They are the result of natural selection, survival of the fittest, etc. The advantages of using a pure strain tilapia in aquaculture are the highly predictable tolerances, resistances and rates of growth; that are nearly identical for each individual fish. Examples include: Blue, Nile, and Mozambique
- Improved are also genetically from a single species, but they have been selectively culled to increase the frequency of naturally occurring mutations, such as size or shape. The advantages of using an improved variety in aquaculture are the same as for pure strain, with the added benefits achieved by the mutation. Just like pure strain, these advantages are nearly identical for each individual fish. The Orange Mozambique is a good example of an improved tilapia.
- Hybrids are not genetically from the same species. They are not the result of natural selection. They are created by humans who cross two pure strain, or two hybrids, or two improved, or a pure strain and a hybrid, or a pure strain and an improved, etc., etc. with each other. The tolerances, resistances and rates of growth for hybrid tilapia are always a combination of both parents, and not identical for each individual fish. As a result, any stated statistics need to be expressed as a range from highest to lowest. Using hybrid tilapia in aquaculture is tricky, because most hybrids have not been adequately researched, if at all. Examples include: Red Tilapia, ND-21, ND-41, ND-56, Pennyfish, Hawaiian Gold, and White Nile.
- Genetically engineered are not a natural species and may not even be from a single genus. They are not the result of natural selection. They are created by humans who alter the DNA within the cells. The advantages of using genetically engineered tilapia in aquaculture are the carefully studied tolerances, resistances and rates of growth; as well as the benefits created in the lab. These advantages are nearly identical for every lab-created fish. A good example is the YY Sex Determining Chromosome Nile male. It should also be noted that it is currently illegal to sell genetically engineered tilapia as a food source in the United States.
- Chemically altered tilapia are those that have been exposed to various compounds, most notably hormones, in an effort to alter them in some way. The most common use of chemicals is to change the reproductive organs of tilapia fingerlings from female to male using testosterone or similar compounds. In fairness, I have not been able to find any study that sufficiently demonstrates any dangers to humans who consume hormone-treated tilapia. Still, I find it curious that the warning labels on many of the containers warn that women should not handle the contents. Surprisingly, the State of New Mexico actually requires that sex-reversal hormones be used on tilapia at every hatchery and farm within their borders.
Of the five kinds of tilapia above, the most misrepresented are the hybrids. Dealers of tilapia fingerlings seem to have a problem using the word hybrid, even if the rules of naming fish are pretty clear. If a person crosses two different tilapia together, they can call it whatever they like, except for the common names of pure strains specified in the taxonomy of tilapia. So names like Apple Snacker, and Tasty Fin are okay, but not names that include words like Nile or Blue, such as Green Brook Nile or Midwest Blue. If however, someone really insists on using words like Nile or Blue in the name of their hybrid fish, they are supposed to add the word "hybrid" at the end of the name. So instead of calling it a Pumpkin Nile, they are required to call it a Pumpkin Nile Hybrid.
A good example of improper naming is the White Nile Hybrid. Most tilapia sellers drop the word hybrid from the description and just call them White Nile, but this is a deception. Truly white Nile tilapia are a one-in-a-hundred-thousand pure strain albino mutation. Some sellers are correctly calling this fish the "Rocky Mountain White" which is perfectly acceptable because it doesn't use the common name of any pure strain specified in the taxonomy of tilapia.
The White Nile Hybrid tilapia fingerlings being sold online were created as a hybrid cross between a Blue female and a Nile male. The people who created them made a marketing decision to drop the required hybrid word from their name. By doing this, they falsely represent that their tilapia fingerlings are a naturally occurring species found in the taxonomy of tilapia. And by inference, have the same tolerances, resistances and rates of growth as the pure strain.
The very same marketing lie exists about Red Nile Tilapia. Until recently, Red Nile Tilapia were sold by their proper name of Red Tilapia. But somewhere along the way, an Internet seller thought it would be more profitable to add the word Nile to the name, and everyone followed suit. But make no mistake, the tilapia fingerlings being marketed as Red Nile on the Internet are all hybrid crosses between several species, including Nile, and have no scientific studies to back up their stated tolerances, resistances, or rates of growth.
Speaking of studies, I actually do have a study that is very well cited and proves that Red tilapia are nothing more than a mishmash of several species and cannot be reliably used in aquaculture. It was originally published at Auburn University, and is available online courtesy of the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Here is a link to download the paper in .rtf format. It may go straight into your downloads folder, but don't worry, it's from a safe university source.
Understanding tilapia growth characteristics
Under optimal conditions, tilapia eggs hatch about 48 hours after they are fertilized. For about seven days they develop inside of their mother's mouth then emerge as tiny tilapia fry. For the next 34 weeks they continue to grow at an incredible rate, after which their growth drops off considerably. This pattern of growth is one of the most important aspects that you need to understand before you buy tilapia fingerlings, and the topic that I will attempt to explain below.
The first week
There are already some very good educational resources on the Internet concerning the mechanics of tilapia egg fertilization, so I see no point in re-explaining what others have already taken the time to do so well. Instead, I will focus on the timing, the importance of which never seems to be emphasized. A tilapia literally goes from an unfertilized egg to an independently viable fry in only 168 hours. Think about that for a second. It grows so fast that within 48 hours the fertilized tilapia egg is already growing a tail and by the next day it has eyes.
The next four weeks
After leaving their mother's mouth at one week old, the tilapia fry will continue to develop into fingerlings at wildly varying rates. By the time that four weeks have passed, a certain percentage will already be over one inch long while others will only be 3/16th of an inch. This has nothing to do with the amount of food that they consume, rather it's completely up to the genetic traits decided at egg fertilization. One such trait is gender. Although the reproductive organs of the tilapia fry have not yet developed, the final outcome has already been determined. This four week period is of particular concern for anyone buying tilapia fingerlings because it is at this stage when most of the places offering tilapia sell them incorrectly identified as fingerlings instead of fry.
There is also a fact here that the people who use sex-reversal hormones completely miss. Tilapia do not grow faster BECAUSE they are male, instead, BEING male is another genetic trait that usually accompanies the trait for rapid growth. You may be able to use hormones to put male genitals on a female fish, but you can't use hormones to change their DNA to include a genetic trait for faster growth. All you've done is create a slow-growing female with testicles. Fortunately the people who use sex-reversal hormones are limited to the state of New Mexico where hormone use is required by law, and a few growers in Florida.
The next thirty weeks and beyond
Over the next thirty weeks, the one inch and over fingerlings will grow to between one and two pounds each and the 3/16th inch fry will grow to between six and eight ounces. Pay careful attention to the sizes here. Notice that the fingerlings that were one inch and larger at three weeks old have now grown to between one and two pounds. The rest are all progressively smaller, all the way down to just six ounces.
So why just 30 weeks? Because after 30 weeks the initial growth spurt is over. But one to two pounds is hardly the maximum size for a tilapia, so what's happening? Well just like puberty in humans, the period of fast growth is over. After which they continue to grow at a agonizingly slow rate, only reaching their maximum size after several years. 30 weeks old is also the point where most tilapia farmers tend to harvest their fish. To continue to grow their tilapia beyond this point would require much more food per ounce of weight gained, subsequently driving up the costs to the consumer or reducing the growers profit.
Understanding tilapia grading
So if you were a commercial tilapia farmer, wouldn't it be nice if you only spent money feeding the fastest growing fish? Well as it turns out, many fish farms do actually cull out the slower-growing inferior fry, a practice that goes back decades and the process in general is pretty easy to figure out. Simply wait until the fry are four weeks old, then discard anything under one inch. All that's left are the fastest growing fingerlings. It's important to note here that ALL tilapia fry will eventually reach the one inch size, so repeated culling will not yield any benefit. In fact, repeated culling will only introduce older slower-growing tilapia into an otherwise fast-growing group.
Things to avoid
It's important to understand that you have no way of knowing what you are getting from a tilapia seller. Many of these people hide comfortably behind false statements made by others in the industry. It works kind of like fake news on Facebook. One person says it first, then everyone else repeats it knowing that if they were ever confronted, they can simply claim that "it was their understanding", or "it's industry practice" or "it's what everyone does". In the case of tilapia fingerling dealers, there are people who literally cut and paste this incorrect information then conveniently thank the "aquatic community" for their statements. To help you identify the places who are likely to rip you off, here's a short list of common scams and things to avoid.
Low price with high shipping charges
How can one company ship a box of fish for free and the next company ship the same number of fish for $75? The answer is simple, although it might not be that obvious unless you have a commercial shipping account. High volume shippers only pay about $12 for postage per box and low volume, or residential shippers, can pay up to $54 per box. I'm not "ball parking" the numbers, these rates are published by the post office. It makes perfect sense that a high volume company might offer free shipping, they're only paying twelve dollars, and I suppose if you want to buy from a mom-and-pop shop, you might be willing to pay up to $54. But that's not a scam, that's just you making the decision to pay more for shipping in support of a particular seller.
The scam occurs when you are asked to pay more than $54 for shipping. This means one of two things. Either the fingerling dealer is unaware of how to properly pack and ship the tilapia so that they will survive their trip, forcing them to "Hail Mary" the fish to you as fast as possible using overnight services, or that they are attempting to lure you in with a low price, hoping that you will be too far into the purchase process to back away when you notice the high shipping charges. I suppose that both could be true for some tilapia sellers. In any event, when you see a low price, look closely at the shipping charges before you complete the purchase.
While I'm on the subject of shipping, I think it is important to mention that the post office does not own any airplanes. Instead, they contract with FedEx to do all of the flying. The only difference between shipping live animals via FedEx and the US Postal Service is the person who carries the fish between the airport and your door. So when a tilapia fingerling dealer justifies the higher shipping charges of FedEx and claims that the US Postal Service is "inferior", they are just putting their inexperience on display. Personally, I'd much rather have my mail carrier, a person who has to face me every day, handling my fish.
Money only websites
As if they aren't making it obvious enough, unless you actually want to buy tilapia fingerlings from a dealer who only wants your money, don't buy fingerlings from websites that do not contain original educational resources. These days you can't even buy tires online without pages of information about their construction. So there's really no excuse for a tilapia seller to not have lots of helpful information that isn't just cut-and-paste from other websites or the so-called "aquatic community". These people will not help you after the sale or if your fish die, nor do they care.
Half inch fingerlings
There is no such creature as a half inch tilapia "fingerling", but that fact doesn't stop dozens of tilapia dealers from selling them. Tilapia MUST be one gram or heavier before they have sufficiently developed into fingerlings. A one gram fingerling is one inch long. The scam works like this. The website proudly advertises that they have "fingerlings" in the 1/2" to 1 1/2" size. When your order arrives, it's nearly all 1/2" fry. You contact the company by email and they reply that "their fingerlings" can range anywhere in size from 1/2" to 1 1/2". Of course you explain that you thought they meant a mix of sizes from 1/2" to 1 1/2", but nope, that's not what they meant.
I've had this scam happen to me, exactly as I described it above. I could have bought 100 fry for less than $120 from another site, but I let my hope for a few fish in the 1 1/2" size get the better of me and I ended up spending $275 after shipping for a bunch of fry.