News & Events

Hawaii Board of Agriculture Approves Tilapia Rule Change

Sep 28, 2017

On September 26, the Hawaii Board of Agriculture voted to move Oreochromis niloticus, also known as Nile Tilapia, from Restricted List A (for research only) to List B (for commercial production).  This rule change is being hailed as a major victory for tilapia producers in the state.

Several Oahu farmers and aquaculture industry stakeholders presented testimony to the Board in favor of the rule change, including CTSA Industry Advisory Chairman (IAC) Ron Weidenbach, IAC member Fred Mencher and CTSA Technical Committee member Tom Iwai.

“We are thankful for finally having the Nile tilapia listed on the Restricted B List for commercial culture as we have been advocating for this rule change for more than 20 years,” exclaimed Mr. Weidenbach, whose family owns and operates a tilapia farm on Oahu’s North Shore and also leads the Hawaii Aquaculture and Aquaponics Association. “The Nile tilapia is the preferred tilapia species for freshwater aquaculture worldwide due to its fast growth and lower-cost, plant-based diet, with multiple improved strains readily available. Allowing their importation for commercial farming will help to improve our local production efforts, which, in turn, can help increase Hawaii’s food security.”

“Thanks to the Board of Agriculture for recognizing the potential of Nile tilapia to sustain the growth of freshwater aquaculture and aquaponics in Hawaii,” stated Mr. Mencher. “Thanks also to the farmers, researchers, and organizations who wrote testimony and attended hearings during this long process.”

Other farmers who presented testimony at the meeting included Romy Aguinaldo from Romy’s Kahuku Shrimp and Prawns, Fred Lau from Mari’s Gardens, David Morgan from Kualoa Ranch, and Glenn Martinez from Olomana Gardens. In addition, Dr. Andre Seale from UH CTAHR provided important testimony to clarify common misconceptions about Nile tilapia.

The proposed rule change will now go through due process and eventually be presented to the Governor for signature. The DOA Plant Quarantine Branch will establish the import permit conditions for aquaculture operations.

The aquaculture industry has been advocating for this rule change for decades, but some opposing groups expressed concerns about containment and claimed that O. niloticus is an invasive species. According to Mr. Iwai, “Hawaii’s perennial streams are not the ideal habitat for O. niloticus, which prefers calmer waters to grow, spawn, and reproduce.  They are not and should not be considered invasive.” Furthermore, O. niloticus is not a saltwater tolerant species and therefore does not pose a risk to the marine environment.

It is well known that hybrid O. niloticus stocks have been maintained and cultivated in the state of Hawaii since introduction in the 1970’s and that feral populations are also present in streams, as Mr. Iwai explained during his testimony. “Given my background with DAR-AFRC, and over 45 years helping and working with fish farmers locally to develop the aquaculture industry in Hawaii, I can say with confidence that O. niloticus is already here in Hawaii; both in our “watershed” and being grown by aqua farmers. The movement of O. niloticus from the A to B listing will allow greater flexibility of interested aquafarmers in improving their existing stocks and encourage industry growth.”

In 2012, a CTSA study used DNA sequencing to confirm that captive and wild O. niloticus stocks already exist in Hawaii. “The recent CTSA project documenting the presence of Nile tilapia in multiple locations in the State provided a critical fondation for this important rule change,” added Mr. Weidenbach. 

A CTSA tilapia disease study set to begin this November will likely provide additional information on the prevalence of O. niloticus in Hawaii.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture has prepared a Q & A fact sheet on O. niloticusclick here to download (pdf)