Tilapia – it’s become a regular part of the Belizean diet – but 15 years ago no one even knew what that fish was! So how has it become so popular and available? Seems that the fish is everywhere and though it is not as tasty as Belize’s diverse stock of indigenous fish, it is cheap! But is the aggressive and durable fish killing off Belize’s fresh water fish stocks including, crana, bay snook, buttahsi, and the exotic checkered puffer fish? That’s what a new study is trying to find out. Jacqueline Godwin went looking for answers today.

Jacqueline Godwin Reporting,
Since the tilapia fish was first detected in the waters of the Crooked Tree Lagoon it has aggressively multiplied and today the fish can be found in about twenty percent of Belize’s watersheds.

Peter Esselman, Aquatic Ecologist
“When I was here in 1993, tilapia was just beginning to get its traction here. At that time Crooked Tree Lagoon had just began to see an abundance of tilapia that they were not sure what to do with it because they were accustomed to their traditional Belize fish.”

Peter Esselman is an aquatic ecologist who spent three years studying tilapia in Belize.

Peter Esselman, Aquatic Ecologist
“To me it seems like the fishermen really like the tilapia in many cases. Probably about 80% of the people who I interviewed actually think that tilapia eats well, tastes good, it grows big and it grows abundant. So the common option that I was able to discern through forty interviews was that tilapia actually has a good favourable opinion among fishermen.”

The bad news is that the fish aggressive nature makes it a threat to the health of our inland rivers and other marine life. Esselman explains.

Peter Esselman,
“Its been shown in many other places where tilapia has been introduced for fifty years or sixty years that overtime what is a good thing can actually become too much of a good thing. So the tilapia may become too abundant. Tilapias are fish that do not eat a lot of other fish, tilapia is a fish that likes to eat plants, it likes to eat leaves, it likes to eat mud in the water but because it feeds on those basic resources that there is a lot of, they also get to be very abundant. So you get more tilapia in the systems than maybe another type of specie and that is actually the type of effect it may have on the systems here. Is that they become very abundant. And because of that, because they are eating and going to the bathroom in the water, they are actually creating a situation where there is more nutrients, more fertilizer in the water and it can change the fundamental amount of food, where the food is located and when I say food, I am talking about the basis of the whole eco system is the plants that grow.”

Esselman’s research does not focus on specific impacts but he comments on some opinions of fishermen.

Peter Esselman,
“That they have seen reduction in crana and in some cases fishermen have reported reductions in some of the tuba species and also on two occasions they have suggested that tilapia maybe interbreeding with the native fishes so you might get a crana that has tilapia characteristics because they mated or someone said maybe the bay snook might be doing that. That is something that hasn’t been shown by my study but it is a very interesting development if it is true.”

Jacqueline Godwin,
But is it too late for us here in Belize or what do you believe can be done?

Peter Esselman,
“That is a very good question. Its not a “either” “or” situation. It is not catastrophe or no tilapia. What it is, is a whole bunch of possibilities. Tilapia has improved the fisheries in some locations, it has the qualities of being an invasive species that actually has fisheries benefit. So in places like Crooked Tree where tilapia has exploded, in places like Agua Caliente Lagoon in the south, places where tilapia does really well it can actually, I believe, a good activity would be to enhance the economic benefit of this fisheries for the people who live there. In other locations where tilapia might not do so well, it might be in the best interest to try to find ways that these native species that may be influenced by the fertilization of the water that the tilapias cause, by the direct competition with them, these big fish from Africa that are much larger than the native fishes and compete with them for space and food, it may be in the in best interest to try and find ways to keep tilapia levels low. So you can manage them in a system by trying to keep that system in good quality, in other words, if the water quality is bad and if there is a lot of dirt, there is a lot nutrients from cattle farming, from agriculture, and gravel mining- that is the environment that will favour tilapia because tilapia likes that environment. So in some rivers, in some lagoons, to leave them in their natural state with a good predator base, tarpon snooks, barracuda in the coastal lagoons, that is the situation that can help control tilapia and also to try to leave the river with abundant native fishes to compete with the tilapia. So just because tilapia is everywhere, doesn’t exempt aquaculture growers from being careful about managing their outlets from their ponds nor does this exempt aquaculture planners from finding the areas that are far away from the flood zones in which to raise the fish.”

The Belize Audubon Society plans to use the study conducted in their awareness campaign.

Olivia Carballo Avilez, Education Manager – BAS
“First of all it is education at all levels, from the primary school little kids up to the leaders in our country. Education first of all throughout and then looking at possible management strategies.”

And until such a plan of action to properly manage the aggressive tilapia comes into effect those who stand to benefit from its abundance will continue to farm produce and export the fish. Jacqueline Godwin for 7NEWS.

Tilapia is being harvested across Belize Rural North as part of the area representative’s program. Those fish should be ready for harvest in four months.

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