Catherine Toth Fox: It's Time To Embrace Tilapia Despite Its Stigma In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

“Here, try this.”

I had just started dating this guy when he handed me a plate of deep-fried chunks of fish, salted and crispy, that he cooked himself.

I’m not a huge fish eater, but I felt compelled to try it. I mean, the guy spent all afternoon scaling fish and risking his life with a deep fryer for me, obviously in an attempt to impress me, so I should at least be polite.

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And I was pleasantly surprised — not just by his cooking skills but by the fish itself. The white meat was firm and flaky and had a mild taste, if any.

“What kind of fish is this?” I asked, through a mouthful of fish and rice.

“Tilapia,” he replied.

I stopped chewing. Tilapia. The fish that lives in the Ala Wai Canal. The one that if we ever caught it, we’d throw it back and maybe wash our hands after. This is what I was eating?

Not quite. Turns out the tilapia species that occupies the murky canal — blackchin tilapia, or Sarotherodon melanotheron — was brought in by the state in the ’50s as live bait fish for the tuna-fishing industry.

The guy — now my husband — had deep-fried a Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) that he grew in an aquaponics set-up in his backyard. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture — growing fish or other aquatic animals — and hydroponics — growing plants without soil — in a symbiotic system where fish effluent water is used to grow the vegetables.

Tilapia is one of the most popular seafood choices of American consumers. Getty Images

It’s not unlike the Native Hawaiian practice of loko i‘a kalo, where fish was grown in wetland taro patches.

The beauty of it, he would later extol, is that you can grow both vegetables and protein in one system compact enough to put in your backyard or even lanai. Talk about food security.

I’ll be honest: If he had told me ahead of time that he would be serving me tilapia for dinner, I might have faked a migraine. Like many locals, I grew up associating the cichlid fish with disgusting habitats. And if you are what you eat, I wouldn’t want to eat a tilapia from a mucky canal.

But the tilapia that my husband was growing — and continues to help other aquaculture farms raise as an extension agent with Hawaii Sea Grant — isn’t living in dirty environments and consuming nasty microalgae. On the contrary, these fish are fed mostly vegetarian diets and live in clean tanks and ponds, making it one of the best tasting fish around.

Don’t believe me? Ask James Beard Award-winning chef Alan Wong, who once served this fish alongside mahi mahi and opakapaka in a dinner event in 2009 at his Honolulu restaurant. Most of the guests picked tilapia as their favorite, and Wong often featured tilapia — grown at an aquaculture farm on Oahu’s North Shore — on his menu.

Tilapia is the second-most widely farmed fish in the world, behind carp, and the third-most farmed fish in the U.S., according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, behind catfish and striped bass.

Tilapia is one of the most popular seafood choices of American consumers — we ate 1.07 pounds per person per year in 2020, behind only shrimp, salmon and canned tuna — and you can find this fish in grocery stores and at restaurants across the country.

Just not so much in Hawaii.

But hopefully that will change, as consuming local farm-raised tilapia (or any seafood) would contribute to the state’s goal of food security and lessen pressures on the world’s oceans.

According to a compelling study published in the journal Science in 2006, a team of international ecologists and economists concluded that all species of wild seafood — from tuna to sardines — will collapse by 2048, citing overfishing and climate change as threats. (“Collapse” is defined as a 90% depletion of the species’ baseline abundance.)

“Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood,” said co-author Stephen Palumbi, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University in a news release.

That’s scary to think about, especially if you happen to love ahi or mahi mahi, both urged to avoid by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. (U.S.-caught or -raised tilapia is on its Best Choices list.)

Tilapia, as a sustainable food source, has a lot going for it. The fish grows quickly and tolerates a variety of water-quality and salinity environments. The feed conversion ratio — essentially how many pounds of feed it takes to make 1 pound of animal — is around 1.5 for fish. (By comparison, cattle is between 6 to 10; meaning it takes 6 to 10 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of beef.)

Tilapia are omnivores and can eat 100% plant-protein diets, which is better for the environment. And you don’t need to use fossil fuels to catch them, if they’re stocked in tanks or ponds. Eating locally grown food — including fish — is better for Hawaii, too.

We still import about 85% of what we eat from the mainland, and, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, about 63% of all seafood consumed in Hawaii is imported, too. And there are more than a dozen Hawaii farms raising tilapia for consumption, including Kunia Country Farms and Alii Agriculture Farms on Oahu and Kohala Mountain Fish Co. on Hawaii island.

So why don’t we eat farm-raised tilapia in Hawaii? It’s simple: stigma — but one that can be changed through education and a willingness to try something different.

So next time you see farm-raised tilapia on the menu, don’t cringe. Try it. You might change your mind. I did. I even married the guy after.


Read this next:

Keona Blanks: Aina-Based Education Is The Path To A Sustainable Future


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

We called them ' mud fish'. They were always found in smelly, stagnant brackish ponds and NO WAY would anyone eat them. Sorry, I can't get past the " stigma."And, I remember the steaming, smelly prawn farms in Kahuku. Give me a freshly-caught ono, mahi or opakapaka, anyday!

cavan8 · 4 months ago

The plantations used to stock their reservoirs with tilipia, I think to keep the algae and mosquitoes under control, and would open them to the community for fishing every now and then. They did have something of a bad rep, because they lived in a muddy environment, leading to a muddy flavor. But I learned from my neighbors to get rid of that. If you brought them home alive and put them in clean water, that water would soon turn muddy. Regularly changing the water until it stayed clear would get rid of the muddy flavor.

Rob · 4 months ago

I've always been curious about starting up a hydroponics system.

Sun_Duck · 4 months ago

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