Tilapia success story: Colombia’s sustainable production excels in 2020


Published on
February 19, 2021
Tilapia success story: Colombia’s sustainable production excels in 2020

Even amid a global pandemic, Colombia’s network of tilapia producers still managed to capture more of the U.S. market in 2020 – a testament to the sector’s sustainable values and innovative nature, according to export promotion association ProColombia.

Last year, as the COVID-19 crisis raged around them, Colombia’s seafood farmers were able to export 11 percent more fish fillets to the U.S. from January to November compared to 2019, a boost ProColombia CEO Flavia Santoro attributes primarily to how the fish are raised: responsibly, and with adherence to high-quality standards.   

"The aquaculture sector is one of the dynamizers of Colombia's agro-export basket,” Santoro told SeafoodSource. “Tilapia and trout are great front-runners in Colombia and have stood out abroad thanks to their quality, freshness, and sustainability, especially in the United States. Between January and November 2020, more than USD 45 million [EUR 36.9 million] in fish fillets were exported to the U.S., an increase of 11 percent compared to the same period in 2019.”

Many tilapia farmers in Colombia are “constantly improving to keep in step with the best sustainability standards,” as is as is evidenced by the country’s expanding certification profile, Santoro explained.

Colombia was the first country to earn group recognition for tilapia under the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification program, and is one of the leading seafood producers in Latin America with BAP-certified production centers. Four Colombian producers – located in the departments of Huila, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, and Antioquia – have achieved Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification. Additionally, in 2017, the country received the first general certification for global standards for tilapia under Fedeacua’s Quality and Safety program.

Colombian tilapia producers are currently in the process of garnering a green, “Best Choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. The country’s aquaculture industry is also investing in the communities it operates within, ProColombia noted, as well as new technologies to further aid in its production process.

Its extensive sustainability credentials have helped establish Colombia as the main producer of tilapia for the U.S. market, which is hungry for environmentally-responsible, nutrient-rich proteins, ProColombia said. Another factor contributing to the country’s status as a leading U.S. partner for tilapia is proximity – tilapia from Colombia can reach U.S. consumers’ tables in as little as 24 to 36 hours, offering premium freshness and accessibility, Santoro added. 

In 2020, up until November, Colombia exported tilapia and trout worth USD 65.8 million (EUR 54 million) globally, 94 percent of which went to the United States. Colombian tilapia exports to the U.S. specifically reached USD 54.1 million (EUR 44.4 million) during that timeframe.

“The tariff advantages of the FTA with the United States have been a catalyst for aquaculture exports to this destination. Tilapia has been so successful in the United States market that it is used by restaurants and supermarkets on both the East and West coast,” Santoro said.

Farm-raised, Colombian tilapia, in both fresh and frozen formats, is packed with an array of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and D, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, and more. Given their nutritional makeup, both trout and tilapia from Colombia support brain, heart, and digestive health, reduce inflammation, and more.

A nutritionally-dense fish, tilapia can assume a variety of flavor profiles, which has made the protein appealing to cooks all around the world. In the United Kingdom, for example, Colombia-grown tilapia is being used in a number of flagship dishes, including fish and chips. The trend is a rather recent one, arriving around 2018. Before then, “fresh fish imports from Colombia were uncommon, and a rather odd concept for English diners,” ProColombia said.

“In fact, the only Colombian fish products in the U.K. market were fish byproducts and processed fillets,” the association explained. “Now the Colombian fish is being introduced into British flagship dishes such as fish and chips, with some 10,500 U.K. restaurants specializing in this dish. And there is much room to grow for Colombian tilapia, with two-thirds of fish consumed in the United Kingdom being imported.”

To engage with individuals and families while they isolate in their homes as a result of the pandemic, ProColombia has partnered with a number of influencers, chefs, wellness advocates, and others to promote and share tilapia recipes on social media channels. The association said reception has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s looking to continue the campaign throughout 2021.   

“This is a fish farmed in the best way possible, that is easy to prepare fresh or frozen,” ProColombia said. “It’s top-of-mind for Colombia, and we look forward to sharing it even more with consumers in the U.S. and around the world.”

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