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What Is the Origin of Tilapia Fish?

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The tilapia (Cichlidae family) is familiar to aquaculture enthusiasts, who use the fish in self-enclosed hydroponic and edible fish systems. Native to Africa and the Middle East, tilapia are now grown as farmed fish in the United States, Canada, China, Ecuador and Taiwan. There are three genera, Oreochromis, Sarotherodon and Tilapia, which include more than 70 species.

Nile Tilapia

The oldest known examples of fish farming, believed to be Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), are depicted in Egyptian tombs, painted more than 3,000 years ago. Also known as St. Peter’s fish because of Bible passages referencing feeding the masses, the Nile tilapia is still widely farmed in Africa. Growing as large as 24 inches long, this freshwater tilapia thrives in fresh and brackish waters ranging from 47 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Tilapia are mouth-breeders, carrying the fertilized eggs and young fish in their mouths for several days after the yolk sac is absorbed.

Blue Tilapia

The blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), also known as Israeli tilapia, generally lives in fresh water, although it is also found in brackish and in a few locations, salt water. Like the Nile tilapia, the blue tilapia was exported from its native North Africa and Middle East to numerous locations worldwide. The blue tilapia has naturalized, becoming invasive and breeding in lakes, ponds, rivers and canals where temperatures are above 68 degrees. It grows to nearly 18 inches long and 4.4 pounds.

Blackfin Tilapia

Found in freshwater coastal lagoons and brackish river estuaries along the west coast of Africa, the blackfin tilapia (Sarotherodon melanotheron) is a tropical fish, living in temperatures between 64 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit. While juvenile fish eat crustaceans, foraging along the bottom, the adults feed on algae, decomposing organic matter and microorganisms, mostly at night to avoid predators. Like other tilapia species, the blackfin tilapia are grown in commercial fisheries for food and also sold in the aquarium trade to collectors.

Redbelly Tilapia

The redbelly tilapia (Tilapia zillii), also native to North Africa and the Middle East, is very similar to other imported species, the redbreast tilapia (Tilapia rendalli) and spotted tilapia (Tilapia mariae). The redbelly tilapia is distinguished by the deep red coloring on its belly. While cold temperatures prevent the redbelly tilapia from spreading northward, it has spread to California's Imperial Valley, in the salty irrigation ditches and canals. Populations of redbelly tilapia are also found in Guam, Hawaii and Florida.