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Raising Tilapia – Easier Than You’d Think

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Fish pix

Search the Internet and you’ll find all kinds of sites about raising tilapia: Instructions for building elaborate aquaponics systems, forums full of (sometimes contradictory) advice, specifications for proper pumping systems based on number of fish, feet of lift, and gallons per minute. So many calculations! It seemed like raising tilapia was maybe a bigger project than I wanted to tackle.

But my friend, Leslie, insisted that it’s not that hard. And she offered up a tilapia tank and fish so that I could give it a go. (Leslie was so happy to send fish home with me that she made that clever collage up there.)

It’s been about six months since we set up our tank and we’ve only had a few mishaps, including an unfortunate siphoning accident (thank goodness we were home), one fish dead (unknown reasons), and two “saves” after a fish jumped out of the pond and landed on the ground.

If you’ve considered tilapia farming, you might find our experience helpful.

The tank: 

Ours is a 6′ diameter poly stock tank that holds about 350 gallons. It came outfitted with a PVC overflow allowing the water to escape when it hits a certain level. I’m not 100% sure this is necessary. Situated properly, I think you could just let the water reach the rim and overflow.

This is what the water looked like when we first got the fish home.

This is what the water looked like when we first got the fish home. You can see the bubblers behind the fern fronds.

The pump: 

I’m using a simple aquarium pump with two air outlets. The pump came with hose and little bubblers that push oxygen into the water. A single bubbler doesn’t seem to be sufficient for this size tank. If I need to replace the pump, I think I’ll go with one that allows for four bubblers.

The water: 

With no other options, we did use municipal water to initially fill the tank. We were only able to allow the water to sit for an hour or so before we put the fish in it, so I googled like crazy and found information about adding vitamin C to remove the chlorine and chloramines. Did it make a difference? No way to know, but we didn’t lose any fish in the early days.

Tilapia are algae eaters, so a little algae is actually a good thing – free food! Currently the water in the tank is terribly, embarrassingly green. Too much algae. My next step is to divert a roof gutter so that when it rains, the tank is replenished with clear water.

The fish: 

We relocated 13 mostly large tilapia. Leslie tells me that they reproduce, but as yet I’ve not seen any sign of it. I’m not putting a lot of effort into reproduction at the moment. The tank seems a bit crowded to me right now with these big fish. Once we harvest a few more, I may tackle breeding a bit more.

UPDATE! We’ve had two sets of fry hatch out in the past six weeks. Here is how I discovered the first hatch: Big tilapia mouths at the surface of the water. They’re dying! I thought. Not enough oxygen! I thought. Then I looked more closely and saw hundreds of tiny fish, all in peril from those big tilapia mouths. For the first hatch, I created a “safe zone” from some screening material. After several weeks I let them all mingle. Seems like about a dozen of those tiny fish have survived. The second batch? Interestingly enough, the big tilapia seem not at all interested in eating these. Or at least they’re not being so obvious about it. 

When we first set up the tank we had an issue with mosquitoes. Despite what I’d read, the tilapia were not managing the population of larvae in the water. Solution: I added half a dozen small goldfish to the tank. Now there’s not a mosquito larvae to be found.

The food: 

Leslie had been feeding standard koi pellets daily. I located a source for organic fish food (since we do intend to eat these guys) and started using that right away. The fish never seemed to eat the pellets, though, so I started stretching the feeding out. Currently, I’m tossing about a quarter cup of feed into the tank two or three times a week.

The harvest:

We’ve harvested two of the tilapia so far. These are tough fish. Without giving too much gruesome detail, I will tell you that they are not easy to kill. I think the next time we harvest a fish, we might simply do as ocean fishing people do and let the fish chill on ice.

The meal: 

The first fish we cooked was terrible. Horrible. It tasted like swamp. I was so disappointed; I wouldn’t be able to get anyone to help with the process of harvesting these swampy fish, let alone eating them. A little more research turned up information on purging the fish before eating it. Essentially, this means moving the fish to clear water for several days to remove the swampiness. We separated our second fish and left it in clear water for three days and it made a huge difference. Next time we might try four or five days. Tilapia is never going to be as tasty (in my opinion) as ahi, but for an on-site protein source it’s a keeper.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

26 comments… add one
  • Liz Aug 1, 2016, 1:49 pm

    An African friend of mine soaks her tilapia in lemon juice forc five minutes before rinsing and seasoning. She coats it with a dense layer of spices including paprika, pepper, garlic and onion powder and salt. She then deep fries it. Ah..mazingly delicious!

  • Tersia Mouton Feb 8, 2016, 2:48 am

    Very interesting article! I hope you will give us an update on your progress.

  • Grant Nov 19, 2015, 9:54 am

    I started an aquaponics setup (my first) a few months back raising tilapia. Tilapia are strictly vegetarians, they will consume algae and won’t cannibalize their own young (other breeds like bluegill will). I have yet to consume any of the fish as they are far too small but the author raised an interesting point about moving them to a clean tank before harvesting. Depending on the setup you have for aquaponics, there may not be a need for this. My water constantly cycles, twice an hour. Fish tank water feeds nutrients to the plants, plants and rocks filter the water which is returned to the sump tank and pumped back to the fish tank. My water is still very clear after months. Tilapia are great for beginners due to their hardiness (wide range of water conditions and temperatures), they grow very fast (6-8 months to reach harvest size under the right conditions), and breed extremely fast.

  • Mary Oct 25, 2015, 7:54 am

    We have wanted to raise tilapia however in California it is illegal except in San Diego county (we live in the Central Valley). It is feared someone ‘might’ release the fish into the rivers & streams, so we are all banned.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 4, 2015, 11:10 am

      What about catfish? I hear they work well for aquaponics type set ups, too.

    • Grant Nov 19, 2015, 9:55 am

      All varieties of Tilapia? I’m in Florida, all varieties but Blue Tilapia are banned without special permit for the reasons you mentioned.

  • lori falkenstien Apr 22, 2015, 9:44 am

    How long does it take to grow the tilapia to eating size?

  • Sheri Nov 13, 2013, 4:38 am

    I saw a great Ted talk recently – the chef was talking about the best fish he ever ate. He mentioned putting them in reverse osmosis water for a few days before eating them.

  • Tammy Nov 12, 2013, 2:44 pm

    Your article was very interesting. It left me wondering where you are located and if I could have a tank like yours living in Pennsylvania with cold winters.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 12, 2013, 2:58 pm

      I’m in Hawaii, at a cooler elevation. Certainly we don’t get freezing weather, though. Maybe call your local extension office to see what they say?

    • Moira Apr 8, 2015, 11:36 am

      I don’t know about outside for cold winters, but the agriculture dept. at my school (in WI) has a tilapia tank inside with basically this exact setup. Obviously outside would be preferable, but maybe in a garage or shed would take some of the bite off? Just a thought.

      • Grant Nov 19, 2015, 9:48 am

        much too cold to raise tilapia in WI outside. they are a tropical fish. 70+ water temp for ideal growth

  • Eva Nov 12, 2013, 2:24 pm

    After cleaning them, my uncle used to soak them in milk for a couple of days, or soak them in some salt water before cooking them. It helps get rid of the swampiness.

  • Greg M. Nov 12, 2013, 2:02 pm

    I have heard of one professional aquaponics company that actually purges their fish in brine water.

  • Melinda Sep 21, 2013, 10:58 am

    My grandpa always purged the fish he caugh out of our pond for a few days in a stock tank before butchering them. Especially the catfish. It was standard practice at our farm, there was always a fish or several fish waiting it out in a stock tank behind the house.

    I want to raise talapia and trout with aquaponics. I think it is a great idea to have this sustainable source of protein available. I think if you have the water cycle through the plants and constantly cycle through the fish, as if they were in a stream hopefully they will taste better.

    I am hoping to start my fish project next spring. The winters are harsh here and I don’t want them to freeze this winter before I can get something built to keep them warm through the winter.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Kris Bordessa Sep 21, 2013, 11:00 am

      I have found that grandpas know best. 😉 Good to hear that’s how he did it!

    • Grant Nov 19, 2015, 9:47 am

      tilapia are very warm weather fish. for ideal growth, water temp must be kept above 70. If you are in a cold climate this might be a challenge. They can survive down to much lower temps (high 40s) but growth suffers. Trout on the other hand are cold weather

    • julio Jan 15, 2016, 8:17 am

      Saludos, Felicitaciones por su proyecto, como opina Melinda, si los crías con sistema de acuaponia mantienes el agua limpia, ya que las plantas absorben el nitrato resultante de los desechos de los peces, te recomiendo de utilices biofiltros para q el agua le llegue sin sólidos a las plantas, éxitos. (Sistema de filtración)

  • Donna Hull Jul 4, 2013, 6:55 am

    I admire your determination and tenacity. You really live the sustainable life and set a good example for all of us. Good luck fish farming.

  • Alexandra Jun 27, 2013, 9:26 am

    I am so in admiration of your fish project. I wonder, the tilapia that are sold in supermarkets, do they get purged in clean water beforehand?? I cannot remember ever experiencing the swampy taste you describe.

  • Toni Jun 26, 2013, 4:23 am

    Too bad no one in our house is willing to eat fish. My husband and daughter love to go fishing, but it is strictly catch and release. : )

  • Teri Sugg Jun 25, 2013, 9:09 am

    Interesting about clear water being an remedy for the swampy taste. When I have bought tilapia, sometimes it tasted good, very mild, and other times it had a taste I disliked. Now I know why. Nice to know that if you raise your own, you can control that.

  • Brette Jun 24, 2013, 8:48 am

    Fascinating. And surprising that the taste was so bad. What a big project this is to undertake! I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.

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