TED Home Page About TED Research Projects Sort
Cases Issue Papers Site Index

TED Case Studies

Tilapia and the Environment

     CASE NUMBER:   208
     CASE NAME:     Tilapia and the Environment

A.   Identification

1.   The Issue
     There are some serious trade-offs in aqualculture, evident in
the case of tilapia, one of a handful of fish breeds that are seen
as being the future of freshwater aquaculture.  The species is
highly carnivorous and its continued large-scale introduction could
contribute to the extinction of less aggressive, indigenous fish
throughout the world.  As aquaculturists recognize this and
research universities and institutes like the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research are experimenting with better
techniques and hybrids, development agencies such as USAID and the
World Bank continue to push for the spread of tilapia throughout
the world.  Tilapia is now being farmed in more than 85 countries. 
A lack of international and industry-wide regulation, coupled with
real food needs and implementing agencies' relative lack of concern
over species loss could mean that the destructive fish wins out in
a perhaps unnecessary trade-off between environmental, economical,
and food concerns.

2.   Description

     After rice, forest products, milk, and wheat, fish is the
fifth most important agricultural product.  It is, by far, the
largest source of animal protein for humans, providing 25 percent
of animal proteins for residents of developing countries and over
75 percent in countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, and
Malawi.  Overall, fish comprises 7.5 percent of the world's total
food production.  
     The overwhelming majority of fish consumed comes from the sea. 
In 1993, 84 percent of the total fish catch came from oceans and
seas.  The remaining 17 million tons came from freshwater bodies
like rivers, lakes, streams, and ponds, and from aquaculture
     Fishing is the last sector in which large-scale hunting for
food is practiced.  For many years, institutions like the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WorldWatch have stressed that
the world's natural fish stocks are becoming severely depleted. 
Over-fishing, wasteful fishing by huge trawlers, increased use of
fine-mesh nets, often in response to higher prices for fish on the
market and with little regard to ecological and social factors, are
some of the reasons behind this grave situation.  The FAO, in fact,
has classified nearly every commercially important fish species in
every ocean and sea as "depleted", "fully-exploited", or "over-
exploited".  Analyses of trends in volume of fish catches by type
shows great shifts which are attributable to species depletion -
hence, today, Norwegian fishing boats, for example, are harvesting
cod instead of the herring which they netted in the North Atlantic
up until the 1960s.
     In 1989, fish production peaked at 100 million tons globally. 
Of this tonnage, roughly 80 percent was captured fish and the
remainder produced through aquaculture techniques.  Since that
peak, the production level has remained stable but the ratio of
capture to aquaculture-derived fish has decreased slightly.  That
is, the trend is towards more use of aquaculture techniques, and
away from over-reliance on natural fish stocks which will soon be
unable to meet demand - expected to increase by 60 percent over the
next 25 years in developing countries to keep up with population
growth.  The FAO estimates that there will be a shortfall of 25
million tons of fish already by the year 2000.
     Aquaculture production has been rising steadily, and more than
doubled (from 6 to 16 million tons) in the interim decade between
1984 and 1993.  The ICLARM/CGIAR study supported by the World Bank
predicts that, within the next 15 years, aquaculture (in bays,
seas, and inland) could provide up to 40 percent of the fish
consumed by humans.  Aquaculture is a double-edged sword, however. 
Its use as a production method has the potential to relieve some of
the overwhelming pressures on natural fish species.  All too often,
however, the techniques used in aquaculture are, in and of
themselves, harmful to the environment, especially in cases where
market forces cause high competition between aquaculture projects. 
The destruction of mangroves and the salination of groundwater in
areas where intensive shrimp farming is practiced is one well known
example.  Another example is that of a freshwater fish of African
origin - tilapia- which, on one hand is optimal because of its
capacity to reproduce and grow quickly and ability to survive in
low-oxygen water bodies such as stagnant ponds, yet is also
extremely carnivorous of the eggs and young of its own and other
species, having, in fact led to the depletion of a fish indigenous
to Costa Rica, the Guapeta.  
     Tilapia refers to a freshwater fish species indigenous to
Africa.  There are many different subspecies of tilapia, including
T. rendalli, T. Zillii, S. mossambicus, S. melanotheron and
Gambusia, which adds to confusion in some discussions.  
Particularly in North America, tilapia is used to refer to a
completely different fish, the Nile perch, leading to some
confusion, particularly in the media.  The nickname "the aquatic
chicken" has been used on tilapia, due to its ability to grow
quickly with poor-quality inputs.  For the most part, tilapia is an
herbivorous fish, although there are many recorded instances of
carnivorous tilapia, particularly of eggs and young fish and in
over-crowded conditions.  Especially since the 1970s, innumerable
experiments to limit the reproduction and growth of certain species
of tilapia (important in terms of the productivity of the fish and
the carrying capacity of ponds in which they are cultured) have
been carried out.

3.   Related Cases:


     Key Words:
     (1): Domain                   = AFRica
     (2): Bio-geography            = TROP
     (3): Environmental Problem    = SPLS

4.   Draft Author:  Cheryl M. Brown (1996)

II.  LEGAL filters

5.   Discourse and Status:  Disagreement and Allegation

     While there are no international treaties regulating the
production of tilapia, there are scientific standards for
aquaculture.  The potential for importing countries to attempt to
ban tilapia or other fish from certain suppliers certainly exists. 
Indeed, there seems to be the stirrings of such a movement in the
United States where funding for domestic aquaculture research
institutes is in danger.  Firms which in some way loose their
subsidies and cannot compete with tilapia producers who are already
well-established or for one reason or another can produce the fish
more cheaply have been questioning the levels of safety of imported
fish in front of the United States Congress.  As of yet, however,
no specific cases have been brought forth.  There is a potential
for import bans and import standards, IMBAN and IMSTD.

     Aquaculture has been practiced for centuries in paddy ponds,
tanks, and other small bodies of water with no regulation.  Large
scale aquaculture projects for food and for economic development
and small-scale projects for rural development often depend on
green-revolution techniques and increased attention to standards. 
Rather than being regulated by laws or treaties, production
techniques are influenced by scientific standards.  A brief review
of technical documents shows a great concern for productivity, the
health of the fish and its consumers, economic efficiency, and
environmental and biodiversity protection.  In the United States,
a February 1989 conference entitled "Human Influences on the
Dispersal of Living Organisms and Genetic Materials into Aquatic
Ecosystems" addressed some of these issues, and while no standards
were set, the foundations for updating the Federal Interagency Plan
for Ocean Pollution Research, Development, and Monitoring which
deals with risks, impacts, and safety issues related to aquaculture
were set.

     In the case of tilapia, codes for risk management procedures
have been proposed by many organizations, including the
International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, and, in the
United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and
Wildlife Service, and the states of California and Hawaii, but the
real work in this area has only just begun. If tilapia was to
become perceived as a great threat to certain species (as in the
Tuna-Dolphin case) consumer education and boycotts could
theoretically be used to levy technological and industry-wide self-
regulatory advances.

6.   Forum and Scope:  Many and Region

     Likely fora for cases concerning tilapia and other products of
aquaculture will be in structures within regional free trade
agreements and the WTO.

7.   Decision Breadth:  5

     Actors which would be effected by any legal action would range
from small farmers, fishers, local producers, and aqua-business
endeavors to exporters and importers of the product. 

8.   Legal Standing:  Treaty

9.   Geographic Locations:  GLOBAL, especially ASIA and AFRica 

Continetn:          Africa
Region:             East Africa
Country:            Congo

     Tilapia is indigenous to Africa, yet in Lake Victoria and
other areas where it occurs naturally, populations are dwindling in
size, due to overfishing, overcrowding, and exposure to highly
carnivorous breeds.  Ironically, in some of the over 85 countries
around the world where tilapia has been introduced in aquaculture
projects, just the opposite is occurring: tilapia are highly
carnivorous of the eggs and young of indigenous species in North
and Central America.  Tilapia have been extensively farmed in
Bangladesh, but no conclusive evidence that the fish has a
preference for fish of the Western Hemisphere over Eastern
varieties was found.
     The main tilapia-producing countries are Indonesia, Taiwan,
Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Jamaica, Israel, and African countries
around Lake Victoria.  Tilapia mossambica was stocked in Jamaican
rivers and lakes in the 1950s.  In 1992, Jamaica's largest tilapia
grower exported 8,800 kg of whole fish and 1,320 kg of tilapia
fillet to the United States and Europe each week.  More recently,
Haiti, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago have begun farming tilapia to
earn foreign exchange.  In California, tilapia has been used for
weed control in irrigation channels.  As in Africa, tilapia was
introduced as a sport fish in the rivers and lakes of Alabama.

10.  Sub-National Factors:  NO

     In the United States, both Hawaii and Florida have strict
regulations over the use and spread of tilapia.

11.  Type of Habitat:  OCEAN

     Tilapia are grown in natural ponds (where they are often used
for pest control), aquaculture ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers. 
There are even breeds which can survive in slightly salty water. 
Aquaculture projects can be created in irrigation systems, in water
reservoirs (ranging from small ponds in paddies to large bodies
created from dams) useful in tropical and subtropical countries
during their dry seasons, or in specially-built fish-tanks and
ponds.  Paddy, or rice field, culture of tilapia has been attempted
successfully in many countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Taiwan, Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and
Tanzania.  The tilapia assist in pest control, and their growth
maximizes water use.  Tilapia has even been cultured in power
station cooling ponds in Great Britain, Germany. Russia, and the
United States!

     In industrialized countries like the United States and certain
European states, superintensive aquaculture is practiced, in which
the fish are grown in crowded tanks, requiring often expensive
inputs and filters.  As the water in these tanks needs to be
frequently re-oxygenated, innovative experiments in which
hydroponic vegetables are grown on top of tanks, serving, in the
meantime, as natural filters, have shown some promise.  In
general, the less capital-intensive methods have better returns to
investment, although the isolated tanks used in superintensive
aquaculture removes some of the risk of escape into other bodies of
water, and the consequent threat to indigenous species.

IV.  TRADE filters

12.  Type of Measure:  Regulatotry Standard

     Potential types of measures include: Import bans [IMBAN],
SUBSIDY, Regulatory Standard [REGSTD], and QUOTA.

13.  Direct vs. Indirect Impacts:  INDirect 

     When import standards are established, they are usually
defined in relation to domestically produced goods and services. 
Increasingly, international bodies like the WTO will establish the

14.  Relation of Trade Measure to Resource Impact

          Directly Related    -  YES  TILAPIA
          Indirectly Related  -  NO
          Not Related         -  NO
          Process Related     -  YES SPLS

     A country might get World Bank or AID funds and technical
assistance to develop an aquaculture project.  The country chooses
to breed only one species, tilapia, and begins exporting the fish
to earn foreign exchange.  Small producers also begin aquaculture
projects for local consumption.  Then, in tilapia-importing
countries, a consumer education campaign comes out against the
destructive habits of tilapia, and politicians instate an import
ban which effectively curbs demand for tilapia, despite counter-
information provided by restaurant and food industries.  Large
producers and small farmers and their families, processors, and
others involved in the tilapia export industry will loose out.  If
they have taken loans, they will be unable to repay them with no
revenues coming in.  One question which has been raised in
analogous situations with diverse commodities is whether the
development agency be held more financially responsible for the bad
projects which it pushed for.

15.  Trade Product Identification:  Fish

     Tilapia is a highly popular aquaculture product because of its
growth rate and ability to grow in extremely diverse and adverse
conditions.  With the increasing recognition that the world's
fisheries are being depleted and increasing demand for fish,
aquaculture is making a small but increasingly significant
contribution to the search for alternative sources of animal

16.  Economic Data

     Between 1984 and 1993, the value of aquaculture-produced fish
grew by 14 percent.  USDA figures show tilapia frozen fillet
imports to the U.S. rose by 280 percent in 1994. Most of the
tilapia came from Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia.  The FAO has
found that the global marine fishing industry is a big financial
looser.  In 1989, it cost the world fleet $92 billion to fish a
catch which was worth $70 billion.  Dr. Dan Cohen maintains that
without subsidies, governments and businesses will not be able to
develop the aquaculture projects that could relieve some of the
pressures on natural fish stocks, and that it is the agricultural
sector (already heavily subsidized) that is best equipped to shift
into aquaculture.  This raises questions as to whether subsidy
cuts seen to enhance free trade by removing unfair advantages and,
by environmentalists, to promote unsustainable agricultural or
fishing practices may, in fact, harm chances for the development of
potential more ecologically sound food production in aquaculture

17.  Impact of Trade Restriction:  LOW

     In the case of seafood, fishers, markets, and exporters often
simply do not abide.  Restrictions on freshwater fish have rarely
been applied.  A notable case in which tilapia imports were banned
occurred in 1994 when European countries banned the import of
Tanzanian tilapia harvested in Lake Victoria.  Despite the fact the
fish were able to fully process and digest them, consumers and
governments were taken aback by the fact that the tilapia had been
feeding upon the bodies of casualties of the Rwandan civil war
which had been dumped into tributaries to Lake Victoria.  This ban,
of course, was not enacted over environmental or protectionist
motivations, but rather over moral issues.  It was lifted just a
few months after being put in place.

     Rather than restrictions, there are more calls for subsidies
for aquaculture and tilapia farming to be established, promoting
the development of infant industries in developing countries. 
Should these be enacted on a large scale in many countries, prices
could be effected, and possibly be held artificially low.  In other
cases, this has led to overproduction to maintain profit levels.

18.  Industry Sector:  FOOD

     Most tilapia is used for human consumption, but a good portion
is used for other purposes. Thirty-two percent of the global catch
of marine and freshwater fish and sea food is processed into fish
meal (to feed cattle, chickens, and other fish), fertilizer, and

19.  Exporters and Importers:  Africa and USA

     Much of the tilapia produced is sold in domestic markets. 
Asian and Caribbean countries are exporting increasing amounts of
tilapia to the OECD countries.  The leading exporters of tilapia to
the United States are Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia.  


20.  Environment Problem Type:  Species Loss Sea (SPLS)

     Species loss in the seas is making the development of
aquaculture techniques ever more crucial.  The trade-off is whether
freshwater species and environments should be sacrificed.  Stemming
from the review of the literature is the possibly incorrect
inference that insufficient attention is being devoted to assessing
the environmental impacts of increased aquaculture.

     While sustainable yields have not been determined given that
the industry is still in what are its infant stages and that there
is a lot of hope for technological innovations, the ICLARM/CGIAR
study predicts that within the next 15 years, aquaculture (in bays,
seas, and inland) could provide up to 40 percent of the fish
consumed by humans. Sustainable yields for tilapia alone are not
readily available.

     Another interesting environmental effect of the trade of
tilapia occurs due to the need to cure it for sale in domestic and
export markets.  Curing processes typically include saline
solutions or drying by smoking or exposure to the sun.  Taste
preferences in some African countries lean towards high temperature
smoking or salt cured tilapia.  Higher profits from trade in
tilapia therefore require the harvest of wood for smoking and the
use of saline solutions which can pollute the earth and water.

21.  Number of Species

     Species - Tilapia (including T. rendalli, T. Zillii, S.
mossambicus, S. melanotheron and Gambusia.)
     Genera - Fish

22.  Resource Impact and Effect:  HIGH and Product

     Endangered natural fish stocks stand to gain the most benefit
from the introduction of aquaculture, if there is a related shift
in world consumption behavior.  The impact would probably be judged
in the medium ranges in the long run, given the time it takes for
species to regenerate themselves.  Since most of the stock used in
aquaculture are breed for this explicit purpose, the impact on this
species in its natural habitat will be low.

     If there is a large-scale shift towards aquaculture and away
from capture fishing, the 50 million people around the world are
involved in the capture aspect of the fishing industry will be
highly impacted.  The other 150 million who are indirectly involved
in fleet servicing, processing, or marketing will also be impacted
to a lesser extent.

23.  Urgency adn Lifetime:  HIGH and 100s of years

     For the world's fisheries, the urgency is HIGH.  For
freshwater fisheries, there is a need for improvements in
efficiency and in some cases, sustainable technology.  In certain
cases, the introduction of tilapia has led to problems of MEDIUM
urgency for species devoured by the tilapia.

24.  Substitutes:  LIKE

     LIKE products in the form of less carnivorous types of fish
such as milkfish, bass, and catfish.  The ability of these species
to survive and to be economically feasibly depends a great deal on
the habitat into which they are introduced.  Conservation using
more efficient aquaculture techniques and inputs.  Researchers are
continually experimenting with new breeds and better aquaculture

VI.  OTHER Factors

25.  Culture:  YES

     The lives of the 50 million people around the world who are
directly involved in sea fishing (as fishers or family members)
have been or will be effected by depletions in fish stocks and in
fishing techniques, by quotas over catches, by import and export
bans and by shifts to aquaculture.  Unless sensitive to local
culture, aquaculture will not be successful or sustainable.

     Changing types of available foods can also cause cultural
conflicts.  There are culinary biases against freshwater fish in
many tropical areas.  Traditional recipes are often not suited to
stronger tasting, less tender fish.  Innovative cooks have
devised methods to get around these draw-backs, including soaking
fish in saltwater, or in grinding up the fish for use in patties,
loaves, and the like.

26.  Human Rights:  NO

     Insofar as most food producers and preparers are women, the
shift towards new foods will necessitate changes on their part. 
Women are typically the caretakers of rice paddies - whether they
should be given control of potentially money making ventures such
as aquaculture or merely be expected to maintain them is an issues
which needs to be addressed on a case by case basis by the
promoters of the project.

27.  Trans-border: NO

28.  Relevant Literature

Balarin, John Dominic. (1979). Tilapia: A Guide to their Biology
and Culture in Africa. University of Stirling.

Cohen, Dan. (1994). "Aquaculture + Agriculture = Profits,"
Agribusiness Worldwide. Vol.16, No.1. pp.6-9.

Edwards, P. and Pullin, R.S.V. (1990). Wastewater-Fed Aquaculture,
Proceedings of the International Seminar on Wastewater Reclamation
and Reuse for Aquaculture, Calcutta, India, 6-9 December 1988.
Bangkok: Asian Institute of Technology (Environmental Sanitation
Information Center).

Greenpeace International. (1993). "It Can't Go On Forever: The
imperfections of the global grab for declining fish stocks."
Amsterdam: Greenpeace International.

International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management
(ICLARM)/ Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR). (1995). From Hunting to Farming Fish, background to a
press release.  Manila: ICLARM, and Washington: World Bank (CGIAR).

U.S. Department of Commerce. (1994). Dispersal of Living Organisms
into Aquatic Ecosystems, proceedings of a February 1989 National
Shellfisheries Association symposium, "Human Influences on the
Dispersal of Living Organisms and Genetic Materials into Aquatic

Wathen, Thomas. (1992). A Guide to Trade and the Environment. New
York: Environmental Grantmakers Association Consultative Group on
Biological Diversity.

Zweig, Ronald D. (1986). "An Integrated Fish Culture Hydroponic
Vegetable Production System," Aquaculture Magazine, Vol.12, No.3.

Go to Super Page 10/11/97