All about tilapia fingerlings
Did you know that you can buy small quantities of quality tilapia for only 69¢ each? How about large quantities for 10¢ each? Did you know that some hatcheries sort their tilapia fingerlings for specific purposes? How about the fact that anyone who has an aquarium with two breeding tilapia meets the literal definition of a hatchery. Have you ever heard of a fishmonger? If you didn't know any of these you're not alone. 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 navigate through these hucksters and get exactly what you need at the best possible price.
Live tilapia for 69¢ each
I know that many of you have come here to find the lowest prices on live tilapia fingerlings and fry so let me get that out of the way right now. You can either use this link to jump to the Compare Tilapia Prices page or you can click on it in the navigation menu at the top of this page. I do however urge you to continue reading this and other pages to better educate yourself. The success of your system or operation depends on what is arguably the most important decision that you will make: your tilapia fingerlings.
Why you need tilapia for aquaponics
The whole reason that aquaponics even exists is because fish produce ammonia and that ammonia gets converted by bacteria into nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of three main compounds of fertilizer the others being phosphorus and potassium. No fish on earth produces phosphorus or potassium or even nitrogen for that matter. Fish only produce ammonia, nothing more. The amount of ammonia that fish produce is a direct result of the rate at which they metabolize food and grow. The faster the fish grow the more ammonia they produce. It's really that simple. As one of the fastest growing fish on earth, tilapia produce a lot of ammonia.
Recent fads into more exotic life forms are poor choices. Crayfish and prawns for example do not produce ammonia, therefore do not contribute anything measurable to an aquaponics system. Wild and sport fishing species such as bluegill and bass are slower growing than tilapia and do not produce enough ammonia to be effective and carp species including Koi are very bony and rarely used in western dishes.
It should also be said that the nitrogen produced in an aquaponics system using fish and bacteria costs more than simply adding a nitrogen containing liquid to the water. So if you're not going to eat the fish or produce enough to feed yourself, there's really no point to aquaponics at all. You should probably just go with a less expensive hydroponics system instead.
What is a tilapia hatchery?
The definition of a tilapia hatchery is an establishment in which young fish are produced. In other words anyone who sets up an aquarium with a breeding pair of tilapia can call themselves a tilapia hatchery. So it's probably best if you think in terms of a basic vs. an advanced hatchery instead. A basic hatchery consists of any number of containers with breeding fish. An advanced hatchery contains all the components of a basic hatchery plus some additional level of procedures and services. Every tilapia hatchery falls somewhere in between these parameters.
Some tilapia hatcheries utilize proprietary techniques that make their fish more valuable to the end user. For example, a grower may need to shorten his growing season to six months but still want all of his tilapia to get to at least 12 inches long. They're not going to be able to accomplish this with tilapia from a basic hatchery.
The main takeaway is to not let yourself be influenced by the phrase "tilapia hatchery". It can apply to just about anyone with an aquarium containing tilapia.
What is a fishmonger?
Before there were fishmongers, the people doing the actual fishing had to sell their catch on the docks before returning to their work on the water. Eventually someone with a sense of enterprise and a little money realized that they could buy out an entire boat and let the fisherman get back to work while they re-sold the fish at a higher price. The fishmonger was born. The fishmongers guild was eventually formed to prevent price gouging by individuals during times of hardship and to prevent fishermen from overfishing the Thames by limiting how much could be purchased by the fishmongers. The fishmongers guild is more than 700 years old and still exists to this day as one of the ancient livery companies of England.
The fishmongers of modern times are primarily grocery stores, distributors, processors and fish markets, but as you work your way back to the actual person farming or catching the fish, you will eventually run into the original fishmonger or his guild known today as a cooperative association. It is important to note that everyone who comes between the producer and the buyer is a fishmonger and that every fishmonger buys low and sells high, even from other fishmongers.
When you buy tilapia fingerlings online, it is far more likely that you are buying from a person engaged in fish mongering. There are also producers that sell their own tilapia while re-selling tilapia from other producers or fishmongers at the same time.
Words backed up with facts
Biologists write things for other biologists to read. They fill their writings with scientific language and make references to the work of other biologists. They use words like "potamodromous" instead of saying that a fish "only migrates in freshwater" or "oviposition" instead of simply saying "laying eggs". They leave it up to other authors to convert their words into something that the rest of us can understand.
Problems occur when secondary authors state facts without citing their sources. The next author who decides to write on the subject gets some of their information from the previous adding their own style to avoid copyright violation. By the time you get three or four authors reading each others work and subsequently trying to improve on it the facts have all been lost. Over time all of this well-intended "creativity" results in mis-information and even made-up tales when profits are in play.
As part of my research into tilapia fingerlings for this website I've 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. In addition every tilapia and tilapia farming fact that I state on these pages can be verified on fishbase.de and fao.org. Facts about businesses, websites and ownership comes from public sources like archive.org, who.is, bbb.org and internic.net as well as all of the major search engines and social media platforms.
A quick primer about tilapia fingerlings
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-teaching things that have already been taught so well. There are however a few important points that I feel are under-stated 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 renditions for what I consider to be the most important facts for everyone to understand about tilapia fingerlings.
There are five "categories" of tilapia
All of the tilapia used in aquaculture and aquaponics fall into one of five categories. Those categories are a pure strain, an improved, a hybrid, a genetically engineered, or 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 varying rates of growth; that are nearly identical for each fish in the species regardless of from where they originate. 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 fish in the species. 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. 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 categories 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 scientific naming are pretty clear. Whenever 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 Rocky River 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 supposed to call it a Pumpkin Nile Hybrid.
A good example of improper naming is the White Nile hybrid. Most tilapia sellers simply drop the word hybrid from the description and call them White Nile, but this is a little deceptive. Naturally occurring white Nile tilapia are a one-in-a-hundred-thousand pure strain albino mutation. To their credit, a few tilapia sellers are referring to their white tilapia hybrid with names like "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 currently being sold online is thought to be a cross between a Blue tilapia female and a Nile tilapia male. The people who create them make a marketing decision to drop the word "hybrid" from the name. By doing this, they incorrectly represented that their tilapia fingerlings were a naturally occurring species found in nature and listed in the taxonomy of tilapia and by inference have the same tolerances, resistances and rates of growth as their pure strain namesake.
The very same marketing omission exists with Red Nile tilapia. Until recently, Red Nile tilapia were sold by their proper name of Red Tilapia. But somewhere along the way an Internet marketeer thought it would be more profitable to add the word Nile to the name and everyone else followed suit. But make no mistake, the tilapia fingerlings being marketed today as Red Nile on the Internet are all hybrid crosses between several species. They are tilapia "mutts" and there are 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 can be downloaded courtesy of the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in rtf format.
What you need to understand about tilapia growth
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 ¼ 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 that were locked in 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 a 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.
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 ¼ inch fry can 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 it's a kind of like an adolescent puberty and the period of fast growth is finally over. They will continue to grow, but at an agonizingly slow rate only reaching their maximum size after several years. Thirty 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 and 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 fingerlings, a practice that goes back decades and is pretty easy to figure out. Simply wait until the tilapia are at a particular age then discard the smallest fish. If you get rid of enough of the smallest fish, all that will be left are the fastest growing specimens. It's important to note that given enough time all tilapia will eventually reach the size being selected, so repeated culling later on from the discarded fish will only introduce older slower-growing tilapia into an otherwise fast-growing group.
As far as their age is concerned, tilapia can be graded or culled at any age. However, waiting too long adds up to wasted money and time as you continue to feed fish that you will eventually discard. As for the grading method, there are a couple of options. The easiest being a grading box with a fixed grid that only allows fish of certain width to pass through. Grading boxes can be damaging to younger fish so they are typically only used for juvenile fish with more developed bones. I say typically because there are people who use smaller grids in an attempt to trap fish down to 1/16 of an inch.
The alternative method of grading is more tedious and much slower, but it is also less damaging to the delicate fingerlings and fry. It is known as top-down grading. To understand this method of grading, you have to recognize that during their first six weeks of life tilapia grow in length before they grow in girth. Comparing a one inch tilapia to a two inch tilapia, the one inch tilapia weighs about one gram and the two inch tilapia weighs almost ten grams. No kidding, two times the length and ten times the weight.
The small tilapia fingerlings that you are buying online are squishy, flexible and held in shape with cartilage. They can stick to surfaces by nothing more than the moisture on their bodies. Grading these using a box is going to damage them. Luckily, if you know the exact age of the fingerlings you can visually identify their growth rate by looking at their length from the top down and grouping them together by size.
To accurately grade fish from the top down, their exact age must be known and all of the fish being graded must be the same age. Without this information the farmer might be grading fish of differing ages which tells him nothing or even worse re-grading slower growing fish that were rejected during a previous grading. Remember, repeated culling only allows slower growing fish to "pass the test".
Selecting tilapia fingerlings for aquaponics
When you buy tilapia fingerlings for your aquaponics system you need to select them with the same care that you used to select your plants. Lettuce for example comes in dozens of varieties. You wouldn't let someone else pick your lettuce or your tomatoes. Why on earth would you let a tilapia dealer pick your fish. Scrutinize the information provided on their websites and make an informed decision.