« November 2006 Table of Contents
Popular farmed whitefish a serious contender on the
U.S. top-10 seafood list
By Rick Ramseyer
November 01, 2006
Tilapia first appeared on the list of America's most popular
seafood species in 2001, when it ranked 10th. Now, after
vaulting from ninth to sixth place two years ago, the widely
cultivated fish is poised to take over the No. 5 spot from
catfish. When that happens - the 2006 statistics won't be
released until next fall - tilapia will be the only new species
to join the top-five club since 1998, when catfish displaced
Tilapia's meteoric rise won't come as a surprise to industry
stakeholders. The warmwater fish, whose origin has been traced
to Africa's Nile River, is a sales star, thanks to its neutral
flavor, versatility, year-round availability and stable,
relatively low price.
Those attributes, coupled with vastly improved efficiencies
in nutrition, selective breeding and processing technologies,
ultimately could propel tilapia to the top of the
seafood-consumption chart, says Kevin Fitzsimmons, an
aquaculture expert and a professor at the University of Arizona
"In my experience, anyone who tries a high-quality tilapia
product is hooked," Fitzsimmons stated via
Indeed, tilapia ( Tilapia spp .) boasts a presence on menus
throughout the United States, ranging from mom-and-pop
restaurants to national chains like Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday,
T.G.I. Friday's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Denny's. Tilapia
also is a standard offering at many supermarkets, specialty
grocers and club stores, as well as at online retail
U.S. annual per-capita tilapia consumption, based on 2005
data, stands at 1 pound, just behind catfish. But this year,
Americans are on pace to eat more than 580 million pounds of
tilapia, in live weight, up from around 504 million pounds in
2005 and 412 million pounds two years ago, and consumption
"will certainly exceed that of catfish," Fitzsimmons wrote.
Stateside seafood companies have experienced that spike
firsthand. Tilapia sales are growing by double digits at Sea
Port Products in Kirkland, Wash., which imports frozen tilapia,
mostly from China.
"Tilapia is the fastest-growing item we handle," says
William Dresser, Sea Port president. "There's nothing [else]
that approaches it right now."
Though tilapia is raised in states like California, Texas,
Arizona and Florida, annual U.S. production accounts for only
about 20 million pounds. The vast majority comes from
For the first seven months of 2006, U.S. imports of frozen
and fresh tilapia, including whole fish, surpassed 190 million
pounds. That's up more than 35 million pounds from the 155-plus
million pounds imported during the same period last year,
according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Most of the frozen tilapia entering the U.S. market flows
from Asia, with China by far the largest producer, followed by
Taiwan and Indonesia. Imports of frozen Chinese fillets topped
74 million pounds from January through July, a huge jump from
just over 46 million pounds for the same period in 2005.
The bulk of fresh fillets, meanwhile, stem from Central and
South America. Shipments from Ecuador - the region's leading
cultivator of U.S.-destined product - exceeded 14 million
pounds for the first seven months of 2006, up slightly from a
year ago. Honduras and Costa Rica are also key fresh-fillet
Tilapia prices overall are relatively stable, ranging in
late September from $3.10 to $3.55 per pound for fresh fillets
from Central and South America, compared with around $1.55 to
$2.10 per pound for frozen fillets from China, according to
Urner Barry in Toms River, N.J.
But suppliers say larger sizes have been difficult to come
by, as many growers choose to harvest the high-demand fish
sooner rather than later.
China, for example, "has not been able to fill that [size]
void yet, so you've seen the pressure on the large sizes," says
Dresser of Sea Port. "So you would expect those sizes
increasing in price, especially as we move toward the holidays
and the beginning of the new year."
China already is the world's No. 1 producer of tilapia, and
it's showing no sign of giving up the title. Tilapia production
in China this year is projected at 2.4 billion pounds, up 10
percent over 2005, according to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service. And exports - 70
percent of which are destined for the United States - were
expected to climb 20 percent.
Grobest USA in Arcadia, Calif., the sales office for
Asia-based Grobest Group, is among a lengthening list of
companies that are helping spark China's production prowess.
Grobest sources frozen tilapia - including blocks, whole fish
and fillets - from China and Thailand for foodservice and
retail customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
"Demand continues to be almost explosive," says Ron Patton,
company president. "So Grobest is expanding its operations in
China and Thailand to try to meet our piece of it."
Nonetheless, supplies for many importers have been hampered
in recent months by concerns about some aquaculture facilities
in China using malachite green. The topical fungicide has been
banned for use on food in the United States and Canada since
the early 1990s. Those concerns led to heightened inspections
by Chinese authorities, resulting in shipment delays.
"It used to take approximately six weeks from order to get
[product] to the United States," says John Victoria, CEO of
Western Edge Seafood, which sources frozen tilapia from a
partner on Hainan Island off China's southern coast. "Now it's
taking from eight to 10 weeks."
As of late September, delays had eased for some
"I'm able to book under normal-purchasing time periods
again, but I still haven't caught up and probably won't until
maybe November or so," says Dresser of Sea Port. "Most people
are in this situation; some worse so."
Shipments have been further restricted by the requirement
for tilapia farmers to register with the CIQ - the Chinese
equivalent of the USDA - says Charles Yi, sales director for O
Fine Foods in Arcadia, Calif., which provides frozen tilapia to
the North American market. "There's a lot of farms that didn't
register with CIQ, so they can't export product," Yi says.
O Fine Foods has seen tilapia sales drop, Yi adds, but will
still handle 5.8 million pounds of tilapia this year.
Frozen tilapia is only part of the story, of course. Growers
in Central and South America, which primarily export fresh
fillets, are strengthening production as well.
Still, lack of rain in Ecuador and a subsequent drop in
production led to a shortage of fresh fillets last fall and
into the Lenten season. That was among the reasons two
suppliers of fresh tilapia fillets decided to join forces.
Enaca USA in Medley, Fla., and Mountain Stream Tilapia in
Miami merged in April to form a new company: Aquamericas, which
now holds about a 22 percent share of the fresh-fillet
"After Lent last year was kind of a tough period for all of
us in the industry; we felt as a combined company that we could
avoid those kinds of things in the future and gain
efficiencies," says Jim Nunneley, managing director of
Aquamericas in Miami.
The deal, a 50-50 partnership, allowed the companies to
blend some operations, exemplified by Mountain Stream's move
into Enaca's distribution facility. For now, Aquamericas will
continue to use the Rio Mar and Mountain Stream brands,
In recent months, the company's production has returned to
normal in Ecuador and remains strong at its other farms in El
Salvador, Honduras and Belize. Nunneley expects up to 20
percent growth in 2006, not including the additional production
capability in Honduras that's coming on now, as well as a
joint-venture operation set to open in 2007.
Tropical Aquaculture Products in Rutland, Vt., representing
its owners in Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica, also is seeing
ramped-up production. By year's end, Tropical Aquaculture
expects to sell 450,000 pounds of tilapia per week, compared
with 375,000 pounds weekly in late August.
"The growth curve continues to increase," says John Schramm,
the company's president.
Coast to coast
Given tilapia's widespread acceptance, it's not hard to find
the fish in foodservice and retail arenas across the country.
Casual-dining goliath Applebee's International in Overland
Park, Kan., with more than 1,880 restaurants worldwide,
features tilapia on the Weight Watchers menu at participating
Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar restaurants. The
grilled Cajun Lime Tilapia, topped with black-bean-and-corn
salsa, goes for around $9.50.
At Olive Garden, which has more than 580 locations in the
United States and Canada, Parmesan Crusted Tilapia ($14.25) has
been on the menu since the summer of 2005.
"It's a mild, white fish that complemented our Parmesan
crusting," a spokesperson for the Orlando, Fla., chain said at
the time. "And it gave us an opportunity to expand our seafood
It's not just the big chains that are tapping tilapia. At
the Riverside Tavern in Knoxville, Tenn., roasted Key West
Tilapia - marinated in key lime and cilantro and served with
white-cheddar mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli for $16.99 -
is a new addition to the restaurant's fresh-catch menu.
In Chicago, the Bistrot Margot uses 15 pounds of fresh
tilapia fillets each weekday and another 20 pounds per day on
weekends. The signature Tilapia Aux Noix ($14.95 for lunch and
$17.95 for dinner) is roasted with a balsamic brown-butter
sauce and served with asparagus, beets and walnuts.
"It's one of the biggest sellers in the restaurant," says
Carlos Gaytan, Bistrot Margot's chef de cuisine."
Moreover, tilapia continues to make inroads in retail
settings, both in the seafood counter and in the frozen
Bloom, a fresh-focused supermarket concept with a dozen
locations in the Carolinas and greater Washington, D.C., in
late August was offering 5-ounce South American tilapia fillets
for $2.29 apiece in two varieties: tortilla crusted and coconut
crusted. "Tilapia sells well in all Bloom markets," says a
spokesperson for Bloom's corporate parent, Food Lion, in
And at the Hannaford supermarket in Yarmouth, Maine - one of
the chain's 150-plus stores in five states - fresh fillets from
Ecuador last month were priced at $5.99 a pound.
On the frozen front, Gerrity's supermarkets, with nine
locations in northeast Pennsylvania, was carrying 1-pound
packages of frozen Seabest tilapia fillets for $2.99.
Newport International in St. Petersburg, Fla., recently
introduced a 1-pound, resealable retail pack of frozen tilapia
under the Jack's Catch brand, priced anywhere from $2.99 to
"We're marketing more heavily now for the supermarket
trade," says Troy Turkin, the company's executive VP of sales
Internet outlets offer plenty of tilapia choices, too, both
frozen and fresh. In late September, Nebraska-based Omaha
Steaks was selling four frozen, 6-ounce lemon-peppered tilapia
fillets for $19.99, touted as a $10 savings. And Amazon.com
listed 2 pounds of fresh tilapia, shipped from Charleston
Seafood in South Carolina, for $26.61.
For now, tilapia sales remain on a steep ascent, with no
plateau in sight.
"We hear people say all the time that tilapia is the fish
for people who don't like fish," says Patton of Grobest USA. "I
don't expect it to level off yet."
Sea Port's Dresser concurs: "It's still extremely healthy
from an infrastructure standpoint. Supply is able to meet
growing demand. I'd say it will continue to grow exponentially
and could even challenge shrimp for the No. 1 spot."
Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland,