Tilapia History

Uran Fish Farmer

One of the oldest examples of tilapia farming is a bas-relief found in a 4,000 year old Egyptian tomb depicting tilapias held in ponds. The Nile tilapia was called ?n.t by the Ancient Egyptians the fish was of such great importance to them that it was given its own hieroglyph.

The hieroglyph is now number K1 on Gardiner’s Sign List, a list of common Egyptian hieroglyphs compiled by British Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner. When used as a logogram, this hieroglyph represented a Nile tilapia. When used as a determinative (ideogram), it could signify not only Nile tilapia, but flathead mullets as well. Just like the Nile tilapias, flathead mullets were important food fishes in Ancient Egypt.

Tilapia in Eqyptian Times

Tilapia is a large genus in the cichlid family (Cichlidae). It used to be even larger, but quite a few species have now been moved from Tilapia to other genera in the cichlid family, primarily the genera Oreochromis and Sarotherodon. For historical reasons, these moved species are still commonly referred to as tilapia fish in everyday speech. The genus Tilapia, as well as closely related genera like Oreochromis and Sarotherodon, belongs to the tribe Tilapiini in the subfamily Pseudocrenilabrinae.

Tilapia is a popular food fish and many species can easily be cultivated in ponds. It has been an important source of protein Africa and the Levant for thousands of years and the Ancient Egyptians cultivated tilapia in ponds along the Nile.

Today, tilapia is a popular food fish all over the world and it is also kept in aquariums. Two of the most popular species among aquarists are Zebra tilapia / Tiger tilapia (Tilapia buttikoferi) and Spotted Tilapia (Tilapia mariae). When it comes to tilapia farming, species such as Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) are appreciated since they grow fast and refrain from breeding until they are comparatively old.

The Blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus) is also commonly cultivated by farmers since it is one of the most cold tolerant species of tilapia. Wami tilapia (Oreochromis urolepis hornorum) is a good choice for farmers that wish to utilize brackish environments since it is salt tolerant.

The traditional way of farming tilapia is in ponds where the fish can make use of naturally occurring food. In many parts of the world, farm animals such as chicken and pigs are raised in conjunction with the fish ponds since their manure can be used to make the pond richer in tilapia food. During the 20th century, two new methods for farming tilapia developed: tank farming and cage farming. All three types of farming come with their own pros and cons which you can read more about on this site.

In order to make tilapia fish more suitable for farming and more attractive on the food market, many different hybrids and strains have been developed by tilapia breeders. Today, you can for instance purchase red tilapia fish in the grocery store and farmers can avoid uncontrolled tilapia reproduction in their growing units by purchasing all-male batches of fry. Interestingly enough, hybridization between certain species and certain strains leads to a really skewed sex ratio in tilapia.

Since tilapia is such a popular food fish it has been introduced to many different parts of the world and is now found in the wild on all continents except Antarctica. Sometimes it has been deliberately introduced as food fish to lakes and other bodies of water, sometimes fish have managed to escape from fish farms. Tilapia has also been introduced in order to combat mosquitoes and aquatic weeds. Since many tilapia species are highly adaptable it is easy for them to thrive in their new homes and tilapia have become a problematic invasive species in several countries

Tilapia Diagram

Tilapia has been raised as food for human consumption for a long time; tilapia farming is believed to have originated some 2,500 years ago. Tilapias have also been transplanted to many countries outside their native range and are now farmed worldwide. In the United States, commercial culture of tilapia is concentrated in Arizona, California, and Florida. It is not clear, however, what species of tilapia are under cultivation. A collection of hybrid stocks currently constitute the bulk of the commercial production. The hybrids under cultivation are female mouth-brooders and believed to have originated from genetic crosses of predominantly blue tilapia (O. aureus) and ancillary O. niloticus, O. mossambicus, and O. hornorum species. Two popular hybrids are the Florida red, a species cross between O. aureus and O. mossambicus, and the hybrid between the O. aureus and O. niloticus tilapias. The aurea strain is principally used because of its tolerance to cold water temperatures.

Tilapia are known for their ability to sexually mature at a small size, around 8-10 cm (3-4 in.) in body length, and a young age (sometimes when 2-3 months old). Adult fish are known to live six to eight years, but some fish eleven to twelve years of age have been reported. In temperate regions, the spawning season of tilapia usually begins during the spring months when water temperatures rise, and spawning continues throughout the year as long as water temperatures are above 22°C (72°F).

As mentioned above, tilapia have an elaborate breeding behavior and are substrate nest builders. In most cases, males establish and aggressively defend territories. Nests are built in the form of shallow pits in the pond bottom, and are used for courting and spawning. After the female releases her eggs and fertilization takes place, most parent tilapia will pick up the eggs from the nest, incubate, and protect their young in their mouths (mouth brooders). A few species will leave the eggs on the spawning substrate and incubate the embryos by fanning water through them with their fins.

Depending on age, body size, and mode of egg incubation, female tilapia has a large variation in the number of eggs they produced. Blue female tilapia are reported to lay around 9-10 eggs per gram of body weight (around 4,500 eggs/pound). The eggs of hybrid tilapia are yellow-brown in color; egg shaped, and will sink to the bottom when spawned. The eggs vary in size from an average of 2 to 4 mm (0.08-0.16 in.) in diameter, depending on the species and number of spawns.

After fertilization, eggs hatch in 2 to 4 days, depending on water temperature. Newly-hatched embryos absorb their yolks in 3 to 4 days. The free-swimming young are then protected by their parents for several days. In mouth-brooding tilapias, incubation, hatching, and care of the young may last a period of about three weeks. After yolk absorption, young tilapias actively feed on a varied diet, such as plankton and detritus.

Information Courtesy of AC Tropical Fish


Nutrition Benefits of TilapiaOne of the great advantages of tilapia for aquaculture and aquaponics is that they feed on a low trophic level.  The members of the genus Oreochromis are all omnivores, feeding on algae, aquatic plants, small invertebrates, detrital material and the associated bacterial films.  The individual species may have preferences between these materials and are more or less efficient depending on species and life stages in grazing on these foods.  They are all somewhat opportunistic and will utilize any and all of these feeds when they are available.  This provides an advantage to farmers because the fish can be reared in extensive situations that depend upon the natural productivity of a water body or in intensive systems that can be operated with lower cost feeds.
In extensive aquaponics, the fish will be able to grow by eating algae and detrital matter and the farmer can grow more fish in a given area because the fish are depending directly on the primary productivity of the body of water, primary consumers.  Fish which feed on a higher trophic level, eating larger invertebrates or small fish, are secondary consumers and a system can only support a fraction of the biomass of secondary consumers compared to primary consumers.

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Ebb & Flow Aquaponic System

DIY Bell Siphon
The ebb and flow gravity feed system is the first system that I started with, and still one that I continue to work with today. The ebb & flow is like a natural system in the sense that it mimics the ebb and flow of the tidal system, which follows the moon. Similar to rivers and estuaries filling up when the tide creeps in, the plants in the growbeds  and mangroves soak in the nutrients from the water then the roots dry out as the water gets pulled back to see, or the fish tank.

The graphic below shows a simple aquaponics design that we have worked with over the years. This system takes advantage of having a limited space to work in. It allows you to grow lighter rooting vegetables up top in the pipes like lettuces and herbs, while growing deeper rooting vegetables like tomatoes and bell peppers in the grow beds below.

ebb and flow gravity feed aquaponic diagram

In this type of system the growbeds are elevated above the tank to give the water a down hill effect. Basically the water is pumped from the fish tank to the grow beds, allowing the water to flow back into the fish tank. This system requires a pump to elevate the water and a timer to set the pump. When the pump turns on the water flows freely through the system. The grow medium in the grow beds acts a bio filter for the fish waste while the plants roots clean the water. A nice an easy way to allow the grow beds to fill to a certain level, giving the plant roots time to soak, then draining out again is to install a bell siphon to your grow beds.

Check out the following video to see a system similar to the diagram above in action using 150 gallon aquarium as a reservoir/fish tank.


The amount of time that you should let the water flow will range from farmer to farmer. A good rule of thumb is to let the system run a minimum of 20 minutes and hour during  the heat of the day (for 8 hours) then let it slow down around sunset and rest at night.

Check out some of the following articles on Ebb & Flow Gravity Systems. [ Follow Us ]


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Urbanfishfarmer.com is your resource for like-minded backyard gardeners, home scale aquaponic farmers and urban fish farmers to share their thoughts, ideas, and plans.

“Aquaponics is where the food cycle for fish ends and the food cycle for plants begin.”

Aquaponics /ˈækwəˈpɒnɨks/ is a sustainable food production system that combines a traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In aquaculture, effluents accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity for the fish. This water is led to a hydroponic system where the by-products from the aquaculture are filtered out by the plants as vital nutrients, after which the cleansed water is recirculated back to the animals. The term aquaponics is a portmanteau of the terms aquaculture and hydroponic.

Aquaponic farming can be used for a large scale production to a small home scale unit. Some use it for preventative medicine, controlling everything that their body intakes, others use it for their main source of protein and nutrition in an  area with a lack of natural resources for survival. A simple system can be as easy as adding some plants to your fish tank, to a unit that offsets many of your family’s meals. The choice is up to you

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