Mozambique tilapia: big plans for a small fish

Fish is a healthy source of protein, but is becoming increasingly unaffordable for South Africans. Ramon Kourie and Vuyani Somyo of Thapi AquaKulcha explain why marine tilapia can be the perfect alternative to other whitefish.

Mozambique tilapia is an inexpensive fish that produces healthy, good quality protein.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite a large annual Cape hake quota, which fluctuates between 100,000 t/year and 140,000 t/year in South Africa, the fish has become increasingly unaffordable for most food-insecure households.

Wholesale prices for South Africa’s favorite fish and chips, Cape hake, have soared in recent years to over R45/kg on a whole weight basis. Similarly, retail prices for canned sardines, one of the favorite items in the national food basket, have soared above R60/kg on a drained weight basis, increasingly exposing households to food insecure at risk of not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids from their diet.

Private innovators
Building on a concept originating from private innovators Thapi AquaKulcha, identified through an open call for expressions of interest in 2019, the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency has taken the initiative to address this undesirable supply situation in fish focusing on an ambitious project to domesticate the local Mozambican tilapia species (Oreochromis mossambicus) for culture in seawater. The project is called Marine Tilapia Industry (MTI).

This large-scale freshwater fish farm in Malawi was developed by Thapi AquaKulcha. Mozambique tilapia and Shiranus tilapia (O. shiranus) are farmed here, achieving a feed conversion ratio of around 1:1 on plant-based feed at 20% protein. Photo: Thapi AquaKulcha

As well as being a response to the problem of hake affordability and the threat of declining ocean stocks, the project aims to take advantage of the natural wealth of Mozambique tilapia along the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu- Native.

The ambition is to establish and develop a value chain for an industry that aims to reach 100,000 t of marine-farmed tilapia by 2035. The growth trajectory charts the course of an industry that will start with the establishment of an MTI incubator in Mbhashe, Eastern Cape, as a base for the growth of a range of business clusters along the Eastern Cape Coast and KwaZulu-Natal over the years.

MTI is encapsulated in the Eastern Cape Provincial Ocean Economy Master Plan and chosen as the priority project from a multitude of submissions reviewed through a rigorous filter by a combined committee of ministries, public entities and institutions in the compilation of the master of economics of the oceans Plan.

On July 24, 2020, the MTI was published in the Official Gazette (No. 812) by the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure as an integrated strategic project and received the sub-project number SIP 23.

The incubator will be located on the shoreline of the local municipality of Mbhashe with a clear set of seeding and catalytic production objectives, including the production of improved genetic lines of purebred Mozambique tilapia and a program for the development of human resources in progress to fuel the phases of commercial growth to follow.

Mozambique tilapia is native to the territory of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Eastern Coast, and the commercialization of marine tilapia aquaculture poses no risk to the biodiversity of endemic fish fauna.

The species grows up to twice as fast in seawater as in freshwater. It also has greater palatability when cultured in seawater, on par with the best line fish, providing improved texture and meat flavor properties, and therefore better marketability. Marketed as a marine fish, Mozambican saltwater-raised tilapia overcomes market biases favoring the consumption of marine fish in South Africa.

In terms of quality, Taiwanese sea-farmed tilapia fetches a high price of US$12/kg (around R190/kg) for fillets in Japan and is used for making sushi. This is about 80% higher than the retail price of Cape hake fillets.

Mozambique tilapia is a low trophic level species (which feeds on plankton, in wild conditions) with a very efficient digestive system capable of growing well on animal-free and plant-based foods. This reduces the cost of production, contributing to the alleviation of food insecurity.

Based on a number of studies, Mozambique tilapia utilize feed more efficiently and are able to achieve a lower feed conversion rate in seawater compared to freshwater culture systems.

These benefits are further amplified through the use of biofloc technology (BFT), which involves the use of seawater and plant-based foods containing less than just 20% protein content. The feed conversion ratio in South Africa is expected to be lower than the approximately 1:1 ratio achieved in freshwater BFT systems in Malawi. Other benefits of farming Mozambique tilapia include:

Upstream and downstream economies of scale and scope and the beneficial effects of specialization, including a reduced gestation period from investment to first income;

More efficient use of labor and management, an effect of farm size and the manageability of fewer grow-out production units on a larger scale (20 tanks each producing 250 t per year gives 5,000 t per grow-out farm per year).

The value proposition in developing a scalable and competitive marine tilapia farming industry in South Africa relies on the use of reduced inputs, plant-based and low protein feeds and reservoirs BFT aquaculture plants placed under greenhouses. This capitalizes on solar heat gains to improve productivity and therefore capital used in agricultural infrastructure with reduced land requirements.

Production costs for large-scale aquaculture of Mozambique BFT tilapia in seawater systems are expected to be around US$1/kg (R15.50/kg), before the fish is sold to a processing plant serving four grow-out farms of 5,000 t/year.

Email Ramon Kourie [email protected].

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