Nile Tilapia: an ‘Exotic’ Species

The past few days have been a bit hectic as I prepare to head to Indonesia, so I’ve fallen behind on my “blog post a day” goal. I do not have much new to report, but I thought I’d share a few disparate thoughts that I’m hoping to tie together as the year goes. I’ve kept this one short and sweet.

So far, my project time in Thailand has been primarily focused on tilapia farming. Before starting my Watson year I’d been seduced by pictures of cage aquaculture in Norwegian fjords and mussel aquaculture in New Zealand’s sounds, but tilapia aquaculture brought me inland. Although strikingly different from coastal aquaculture, inland tilapia farming is a significant component of Thailand’s aquaculture industry. Nile tilapia accounts for about 29% of all freshwater aquaculture production (By weight) in the country, much of which is for domestic production. When I spoke with the owner of Nam Sai Farms he said that there is a ring of food production that encircles Bangkok and feeds directly into the city. So, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’ve eaten a fully grown Nam Sai tilapia from one of the street vendors near the hostel where I am living.

Given that my first encounters with tilapia farming have been in Thailand and how significant a role the species plays in Thai aquaculture, I was surprised to learn that Nile Tilapia are not actually native to Thailand (yes, the name kind of gives it away but aquatic species frequently get renamed to sound more appealing on restaurant menus so maybe I was playing into this a bit). The Nile Tilapia’s natural geographic distribution is tropical/subtropical Africa and the Middle East and they were first introduced to Thailand in 1965. As such, Nile Tilapia is considered an ‘exotic’ species. It feels strangely dissonant that tilapia can simultaneously be an important representative species of Thai aquaculture (they are one of the top five cultured freshwater species in the country) but also be labeled as foreign and ‘exotic’.

Certainly, the separation of foreign and native species is not without importance. Invasive Burmese pythons or lionfish in the United States are also considered foreign. Recognizing the ways foreign species alter and affect their host ecosystem can help us more consciously address what happens after newly introduced species begin to take root in a new environment. I also think its interesting that using this language of foreign and exotic helps create a native/non-native binary. For me, this binary opens up a lot of questions about how we define what is natural and what is artificial (e.g. artificially introduced). What are the criteria for something to be considered natural? How do we decide when a new species has naturalized in a new environment?

Several interesting examples come to mind. Take Darwin’s Finches. These various finch species inhabit the Galapagos Islands, a geographically fragmented landscape, and display distinct beak morphology, songs, and ecology (foods they eat, sites they inhabit). The quick and dirty scientific understanding of Darwin’s finches is that these birds diversified through a process called adaptive radiation. A single initial finch species “radiated” out over the Galapagos Islands. As breeding populations became isolated on specific islands, new finch species began to emerge as they adapted to their local environments. For another example, think of newly graduated college students who formed a close cohort while at university. A “species” if you will. Upon graduation, they disperse to the wind. Many end up in small clusters in cities with good employment, forming smaller groups of interaction within a new environment. Over time, these new college grads change, adapt to their local environment along with the others around them so that they are not quite the same as their friends who ended up in another city/state/country – a new array of “species” has developed, each attuned to the transit systems, coffee shops, and quirks of the place where they live. They have transitioned from college students to local residents/employees.

But why bring up evolving finches and new college grads in a post about Nile Tilapia? Because it feels very easy to think about finches and college students “naturally” entering new environments without first being considered “foreign” or “exotic”. OR their transitions from new, “invasive” species to naturalized piece of the landscape is so familiar to us as to be almost imperceptible. Meanwhile, Nile Tilapia in Thailand are still considered foreign and exotic despite becoming a major staple of Thai aquaculture in just under 50 years.   At what point in time does a new species become part of the natural landscape? You can answer this second question biologically. At least, that’s how you might explain the naturalness of Darwin’s Finches; natural evolution over a very long period of time allows ecosystems and new species to acclimate to each other. But biology is not the only lens we have to think about change. If we think about Tilapia from a social perspective rather than a biological one (because evolution often happens on much larger timescales), they have already “adapted” quite well to their new environment. Tilapia in Thailand, like college grads in new cities, are making contributions to the local economy and are well recognized in various local settings. So why might humans eventually become “locals” and tilapia maintain the moniker “exotic” after 50 years? What privileges do we give to humans, and specific groups of humans, by calling them locals, or natives, when certain animals remain foreign and exotic? How are binaries of humans/animals and native/foreign interacting in aquaculture? I have endless more thoughts on this topic, but don’t want to delve much deeper here because I fear I’d begin to write a long essay or just become even more convoluted. If you have thoughts, comments, or critiques, I’d be grateful to engage them further.

Let me also be clear that I am not criticizing or trying to speak from an “enlightened” pedestal. I recognize that these distinguishing terms serve important purposes in global aquaculture and that there is so much I still have to learn to make these understandings more complete. I also think that listening closely to language is important for understanding how we shape the world around us (all this after talking about the merits of non-language based learning!). I’m just trying to open up some of the questions about how we establish binaries of natural/artificial, native/foreign, and biological/social. I certainly do not have answers.

I’d like to end with something of a *disclaimer*. As a person of mixed-race heritage, who has been called “exotic” and “foreign”, I am hyper attentive to these words. They can do powerful work to turn someone/something else into the “other” and reinforce harmful binaries of native and foreign. I do not think that they are quite so damaging when we talk about fish but, again, recognizing when we establish these structures is important for understanding how we inhabit them. For now, I’m curious to see where these thoughts will go and hope that I can continue to build upon them in my experiences in Indonesia!



One thought on “Nile Tilapia: an ‘Exotic’ Species

  1. Great to hear your thoughts. It is very thought provoking. I’m wondering how you will find Indonesia? Looking forward to more questionings.


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