Tilapia Continues Consumption Climb


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
July 22, 2008

In late 1999, I'd never even heard of tilapia. At the time, my whitefish world consisted of haddock, cod and more haddock. As a seafood industry greenhorn, this Mainer had a lot to learn about fish from other places, especially tilapia, which has risen from obscurity to fame in the blink of an eye.

Tilapia has since matured from a species to watch to one you simply couldn't avoid if you tried--it's on menus everywhere and is featured in popular cooking magazines. For evidence of its budding popularity, just look at the Top 10 consumption list of 2007, released yesterday by the National Fisheries Institute.

Tilapia is quickly rising up the chart, fueled by consumer demand for healthful, mild whitefish. The farmed fish held on to the No. 5 spot this year at 1.142 pounds per capita (one notch ahead of catfish for the second straight year), a 14 percent gain. There's little reason to think No. 5 is the highest tilapia can climb.

But to ascend another rung on the ladder, it'll have to overtake pollock, which registered 1.73 pounds per capita. Could 2008 be the year? The Alaska pollock quota was slashed by 28 percent to 1 million metric tons, which may allow tilapia to leapfrog yet another strong species. The top three--shrimp, canned tuna and salmon--will take a bit longer to reach, but don't rule it out.

Tilapia suppliers are facing their first major obstacles this year, highlighted by rising production costs. Also, the Wake Forest University study two weeks ago that hypothesized tilapia's fatty-acid balance of omega-3s and omega-6s could be harmful for those vulnerable to inflammation might have prompted some consumers to cut it out of their diets. Despite the industry's best efforts to refute the findings, the story found legs online and the headlines weren't good.

What's more, U.S. tilapia imports through May totaled 150.8 million pounds, a 9.4 percent drop from the same period last year. The biggest decline in volume was frozen fillets from China, which fell 16 percent to 66.1 million pounds (frozen whole fish imports from China are down 33 percent to 25.1 million pounds). The drop is likely due to the rough winter China experienced--its worst in 50 years--which resulted in an estimated $1.4 billion in losses.

Despite the supply snag, tilapia's rise is pretty impressive for a species that was not even on the Top 10 list until 2002, when it debuted at 0.317 pounds per capita. Tilapia consumption has grown 330 percent this decade. That's a growth rate that demands attention.

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