The common name tilapia comprises a number of fish species that began in the warm waters of the Nile region of Africa and Asia. Because of commercial fish-farming techniques, or aquaculture, along with the intentional and unintentional introduction of the fish into other waters, tilapia can now be found in warm waters around the world.
Tilapia live and thrive in warm waters and cannot survive for long in temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Indeed, they need tropical-like conditions, with water temperatures between 76 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer fresh water, such as lakes and streams, which have low concentrations of salt. However, they can also survive in brackish waters, where freshwater and salty ocean water mix. In the United States, Tilapia have been found in the wild in parts of Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona and California. Tilapia are primarily herbivores, so they need a steady supply of underwater plant life to survive. They also eat algae and phytoplankton. The fish feel most secure near a structure, such as the weedy plant life along the lagoons in West Africa, the sides of a canal in Florida or the vegetation next to a stream, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Because of that affinity for structure, in Florida the spotted tilapia has been established in the man-made channels used to transport water in Collier, Broward and Dade Counties.
Tilapia originated in the eastern portion of Asia, which is also referred to as the Levant and encompasses such areas as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Syria, all which border the Mediterranean, and in Africa, where the fish thrive in such places as the Nile River, southwest Ghana and Cameroon. Tilapia were introduced to the United States in the 1960s and are used extensively in fish farming. Over time, either deliberately or accidentally, the fish got into the wild and now thrive in warm parts of the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
Tilapia have been a food source for portions of the globe for millenniums. Yet the fish have another impact as well for humans. In some parts of the world tilapia are used to reduce plant life where there have been aquatic overgrowths of vegetation. They are often added to canals, which are channels made to transfer water, and man-made lakes, bodies of water created where none stood before, to control vegetation and algae, according to the Arizona Fish and Game Department. Also, Arizona has its own tilapia farms, to stock the canals that feed the drinking water systems.
The name tilapia, derived from an African word for "fish," is a common term for upwards of 100 species of the genus Tilapia and other tilapiine cichlids. Early on, a tilapia was referred to as St Peter’s fish because of a reference in the Bible. Some of the most popular species are the Mozambique tilapia, which can grow up to two feet long, the Nile tilapia, which originated in Africa and has been imported for farming around the globe, and the blue tilapia, which is also native to Africa and has a blue tint.
Beause of tilapia’s ability to reproduce rapidly, the fish are considered invasive in some parts of the world. For example, in 2004 the government of Palau, a cluster of islands east of the Philippines, set out to eradicate tilapia from four ponds over fears the fish would overtake the region’s natural species if the tilapia somehow got out of those ponds. Likewise, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries conducted an eradication program along the Mississippi River in 2009 to fend off a growing tilapia population, which the organization said, if "allowed to spread could result in drastic environmental, recreational and economical impacts, and fishermen, both commercial and recreational, could be pathways that spread tilapia into other Louisiana waters."
Richard Huff is a journalist and author with nearly 30 years experience. He is the author of several books on motorsports and a handful of non-fiction titles for children. He's been working in daily journalism for two decades, and has had freelance work published in publications as Seventeen, Stock Car Racing and JEMS.