Can Taiwan Tilapia help save the sharks?

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A Tilapia cichlid farmed commercially in Taiwan may be about to become a new weapon in shark conservation.

'Taiwan Tilapia', a hybrid between the African species Oreochromis mossambicus and Oreochromis niloticus niloticus, is the most popular farmed fish species in the country and now a fish producer has discovered that their processed tail fins make a cheap and readily available alternative to shark fins.

This similarity could help the world's shark populations which are currently under huge pressure from overfishing due to the increased trade in their fins which are used to make the Chinese delicacy, shark fin soup. Demand for this has rocketed as China's economy grows.

Wang Yi-feng, general manager of the Kouhu Fisheries Cooperative in Yunlin County has spent over a year developing a technique to transform the previously discarded caudal fins into this valuable new product after noting the similarity of texture of the cichlid's tails to the shark's.

Shark fin soup apparently has little flavour, instead diners are attracted by the chewy consistency which after processing the Tilapia tails mimic.

He also points out that the belief that shark fins boost virility and cardiac health may need to be tempered against the very real risk of mercury ingestion as sharks, like many apex predators, accumulate high levels of the toxic metal from ocean pollution.

Farmed Taiwan Tilapia however are cultured and processed in hygienic conditions and as a result carry no danger of heavy metal contamination.

The idea is already catching on, not least because at US$120 per kilo the Tilapia fins are around one quarter the price of shark fins.

The fish is having a renaissance in Taiwan having until recently been considered a 'poor man's food' since it was introduced to the country after World War II as a cheap, easily reared source of protein. In 2002 it was renamed 'Taiwan Tilapia' to distinguish it from its African ancestors and recognise the years of breeding improvements and hybridisation the fish had undergone in Taiwan making it a unique resource.

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