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Friday, November 5, 2010

Using Tilapia for Indoor Aquaponics

tilapia niloticus ( vs. image from egyptian tomb

The heart of an aquaponics system is the fish. Tilapia grow fast (fingerling to plate sized in 6-9 months), like tank culture, will eat anything, and like the kind of temperatures I like. Plus they have a white, flaky flesh I know my family likes to eat.

The folks at Tilapia Vita Farms, aka Tilapia Farming At Home, have put together a guide to legal issues relative to keeping tilapia in each state. Living in Virginia, I must obtain a permit to "import, possess, propagate, buy, and sell" tilapia, and must provide
place of origin, the name and address of the exporter and a certificate from a licensed and accredited practicing veterinarian, or certified fish pathologist, certifying that the animal to be imported is not manifesting any signs of infectious, contagious, or communicable disease.

I can use mossambique tilapia, nile tilapia, blue tilapia, and/or zanzibar tilapia. The Virginia permits ($22.50 total) expire December 31st, no matter when you obtain the permits. So I plan to wait until January to get my tilapia. With the holidays coming up, deferring fish to January isn't much of a delay.

After fondly considering the various breeds and sources, I'm leaning towards nile tilapia. It sounds good to say this is because the nile tilapia is directly related to the fish of pharaohs. Alas, I'm just a sucker for the pretty white variant developed by White Brook Tilapia Farm. For better or worse, nile tilapia are the slowest to reach sexual maturity (16-18 weeks compared to 11 weeks for blue tilapia).

Even better, for my penny-pinching, internet-loving soul, I can get live White Brook tilapia via eBay ($25 + $89 S&H for 25 fry (1/2"), $50 + $89 S&H for 25 fingerlings (1")). That's $114 or $139 to you and me. Additional batches of 25 can be purchased with only a $5 increase to S&H.

Pros of other variants:

Blue tilapia can survive colder temperatures, down to 45 degrees fahrenheit. You can find these on eBay - I am impressed with White Brook Farms' descriptions and pricing (same as the white niles mentioned above), but right now you can get as few as five from another source for under $35 (fish + S&H).

Female Mozambique tilapia and male Zanzibar tilapia can be interbred to produce predominantly male offspring. Since a mature female tilapia can produce 200-1000 fry every two months, this can be an important consideration. Edgar Sanchez at Tilapia Vita Farms currently offers breeder colonies for $399 + $99 S&H.

Here's hoping White Brook Farms has nile tilapia available in January 2011!


  1. I wrote the folks at White Brooks Farms, and they have white nile tilapia in stock year round - awesome!

    1. By the way, I ended up getting tapped to write The Complete Idiot's Guide to Aquaponic Gardening for Penguin Book Group. The book is now available for purchase at It includes lots of DIY plans as well as everything I wished I could have found in a book back when I was starting out (which wasn't very long ago...). So far the reviews are good!

      Funniest line in the book (as far as I'm concerned) is the mild comment about the fact that tilapia are regulated and even illegal in many places, followed by the sentence "Even some plants may be illegal."

      I work for the government, and they just sent out another little message reminding us of the myriad things that could negatively affect our eligibility to keep working on sensitive projects. Raising certain plants would definitely be on that list!

  2. Another source for tilapia is Tilapia Fingerlings - you can get 25 of their 1+" fingerlings for $50 (plus $52 S&H). If you've got a larger tank or aquapon friends, you can get crazy cheap prices per fish in quantity.

  3. Hi, did you get some fish? I am about to apply for my permit here in VA.

  4. I ordered the fish - I think I got them from, but that was years ago. There's a lady in Alexandria that sells fingerlings, if you want to buy local (assuming Alexandria is local for you).

    Good luck!

    1. Can I get the information for the lady in Alexandria that sells fingerlings? I live in Alexandria and just started a small system and only want a few to try it out before upscaling.


    2. I'm planning on starting one in Reston. Could you pass that information for the lady in Alexandria to me as well. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.

    3. Hi Patrick,

      Before getting fish, you should have a permit from the state. This is particularly true with tilapia, which cannot be raised outside (they need to come and inspect your indoor system).

      In the mean time you could start with a fish that doesn't require permit, like goldfish or koi. Or you could start fishless cycling with straight ammonia. Getting your system cycled (populated with the bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrate) is a great gift to your future fish anyway, since they will get to enjoy clean water from the get go.

  5. The lady in Alexandria is currently out of tilapia. You can get fry/fingerlings from a guy named Matt in central Maryland. E-mail me at < meg at aquaponicsassociation dot org > and I'll put you in touch with him.

  6. Have you seen this system? It is called the ECO-Cycle system and was developed by a non profit in San Diego.

    It just goes on a 20 gallon fish tank so you could have it inside if you live in an apartment or somewhere with no garden space. The price will go up February 1st 2013 from $195 to $250. It looks nice too!

  7. Looks nice for a small system. Now that I've played around with aquaponics for almost three years, I really like a larger system. The effort is actually less for a large system, because it is more stable from a temperature and chemistry standpoint. But as not everyone can have a 250 gallon system in their space, this ECO-Cycle system looks pretty nice.