Number 6), titled An American Tilapia Survivor Speaks Out, was about my early journey in tilapia farming from 1978 – 1991. The irony about this first article was that, by its very existence, it led to changes to my dream at that time of a growing tilapia industry in Florida, which was the article’s conclusion. What the article actually did was connect me to a small (500MT) tilapia cage farm in Central Java, Indonesia. Within a year I became a co-founder of the now famous Regal Springs Tilapia Group producing 90,000 MT/yr.
So, I stopped “feeding fish” in Florida in 1992, but kept my Florida tilapia hatchery Aquasafra, Inc ., eventually bringing in my partner to this day, Jim Riggin, to run it. When I saw the opportunity in Java, the quality of the fish and the rapid scalability using cages in huge lakes, I hoped it could be a game changer to develop a market. And possibly earn me a chance to actually bank a future pension from tilapia farming (heaven forbid). I guess it’s one of those stories about the guy who finally got lucky by hanging around starving for 10 years. I had the responsibility and was in the position to introduce the farm’s production volume to the mostly North American market beginning in 1992 (shortly after my first Aquaculture Magazine article). That time period, and my experience, corresponded to the pioneering of the frozen tilapia fillet market in North America, with Regal Springs leading the way. The table below illustrates to some degree how the market was supplied, from where, by how much and when.
Almost like a biographical magazine for my personal career, I wrote the second article for Aquaculture Magazine 5 years later, again talking about my experiences in the frozen fillet market pioneering frozen tilapia fillets. This was titled, “Tilapia Market Maturity (Sept/Oct 1996, Vol 22, No 5. Pg 19-26). Rereading this article 18 years later makes me laugh while remembering, as it exposes my frustrations and early battles trying to crack into the white fish fillet market. After 100 years of Cod fishing both on the East and West Coasts, the players were not going to easily lose their white fish accounts to tilapia. In the article I was crying about how cheap my competitors were during the 1992-1996 time frame. In the early 90’s frozen tilapia fillet market, we weren’t competing against other tilapia fillets, there were no fillets from China to speak of before 2000. We were competing against the already established, wild caught, white fish seafood industry which was switching from the North Atlantic fishery to the North Pacific fishery with prices and volumes on a constant roller coaster ride. In the second article, again I wrongly concluded that ocean caught white fish fillets would remain for a long time in the $1.50/lb levels and quality (commercially fed) tilapia fillets needed to be in the mid $2’s/lb. price range to make it.
However, within about 3 or 4 years frozen tilapia fillets really started to gain traction with the entrance of low cost China fillets. Up until 2000 it was only Regal Springs and Taiwan splitting the business, with Regal also buying and marketing a share of the Taiwan supply. In the 90’s the Taiwan supply never could develop a strong brand following with dozens of US buyers fracturing the market, racing to the bottom on price. The producers would sell to anyone. The advantage that Regal had was that we had not only a better tasting product with the vertical integration story but our production was privately owned i.e., we had the single largest supply. This allowed us to move the market, setting standards, creating a brand following while introducing frozen tilapia fillets into a new market.
In the early 90’s it was Rain Forest’s fresh tilapia fillets grown in continuous flushing Costa Rican waters developing the fresh grocery and white table cloth sectors. At the same time Regal Springs worked food service and restaurant chains with its frozen fillets from Indonesian cages. These two vertically integrated farms, outside of dirt ponds, provided the first experience of tilapia for many North Americans. This consistency of taste, size and supply certainly paved the way for greater acceptance for product from China. It was classic, text book 101, business story of how a new product introduces itself. Anybody with a consistent quality, price and supply that had a clean taste, plus central ownership would have been able to establish “a brand” very inexpensively by just being “the first-ist with the most-est. “
Of course any story about the history of a product as successful as tilapia is the property of hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people. That’s what makes the journey so interesting and attractive to those making careers in the various aspects of tilapia farming. It takes so many people, each playing a role, to make farmed tilapia continue its success. I wonder if there is any demand for an organization to link all these tilapia people for a few common goals. So many other products especially farmed unite to protect their interests. If there is a demand among the 1000’s of aficionados involved in the tilapia industry, then perhaps we should exploit a convergence of interests “unite to promote, advance and strengthen the tilapia industry?” There is an opportunity with the newly formed ATA, “America’s Tilapia Alliance.” It can be developed to assist this task, and if you are interested contact us at www.americastilapiaalliance.org
In the next articles, I hope to write about the main challenges within the tilapia industry: the positive and negative. Perhaps shedding light on how and why this fish has boomed to the 4th most consumed seafood in North America.