Tilapia has become one of the most popular fish to buy at the grocery store or order at a restaurant, but because the species poses a threat to native fish, commercial production is illegal in Utah.
That statewide ban hasn’t deterred Cliff Sackett and his wife, Teri.
The Moroni farmers are seeking an exemption from the law so they can raise and sell the mild-tasting white fish — along with lettuce, cabbage and other leafy greens — to Utah restaurants, grocery stores and Asian fish markets.
The Utah Wildlife Board will consider the variance request Thursday during its monthly meeting.
“I want to get fresh fish and vegetables out to the community,” said Cliff Sackett. “I hate to see the frozen stuff come from out of country. Some of it has mercury and other [pollutants] you can’t put your thumb on."
If the board approves the Sacketts’ request — and the couple get an aquaculture license from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food — it would be the first time tilapia farming has been allowed in the Beehive State.
But it still may take some time before consumers can purchase Utah-raised tilapia. The Sacketts say it would take at least six months to build the facility. They also recently lost their main investor and are looking for another serious business partner.
Getting a variance has been a yearslong process, Sackett explained, so they’re used to waiting.
Possibly one of the oldest farm-raised fish in the world, tilapia has been called St. Peter’s fish, because biblical scholars believe it was the fish used by Jesus to feed the crowds at the Sea of Galilee.
In recent years, U.S. consumption of tilapia has grown 15 percent to 30 percent annually. About 80 percent of the fish is shipped in from China and other Asian countries. Another 10 percent is farm-raised in South America.
“We produce very little here,” said Sackett, who added that getting the exemption to raise tilapia also could be a boost for a growing form of agriculture called aquaponics in the state.
Aquaponics — in which fish, plants and microbes work in symbiotic fashion — has been around for centuries. According to agricultural studies, the farming method produces three to six times more vegetables and uses 70 percent to 90 percent less water than traditional dirt farming.
As available land and water become more scarce, aquaponics and its cousin hydroponics — in which plants grow in water without the fish fertilization — are seen as viable alternatives for food production.
How does it work? It starts with the fish, which naturally emit waste and ammonia into the tank. The excrement-laden water — which offers a complete fertilizer for the plants — is pumped into growing beds, where naturally occurring, but beneficial, organisms break down the ammonia into nitrites and then nitrates.
The plants absorb the nitrates, helping them grow and naturally filtering the water. With no restrictive dirt, and plenty of nutrients, the plants quickly form massive root systems.
Several species of fish do well in these recirculating aquaponic systems, including trout, koi and goldfish. But tilapia is the most common species used nationwide. The fish reach full size quickly and can tolerate crowding and fluctuating temperatures.
Cliff Sackett has been in the fish business for two decades and has helped develop an innovative filtration system, which reuses and recycles 98 percent of the water. Because of the fish’s rapid reproductive rate, he estimates that the aquaponics facility he wants to build in central Utah’s Sanpete County could produce 17,500 pounds of tilapia — worth as much as $65,000 — each month.
A Certification Review Committee from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has studied the Sacketts’ variance request and has recommended approval — as long as certain guidelines are followed. Namely, the agency wants to ensure that the Sacketts build a safe facility away from essential streams and waterways and one that can withstand flooding and earthquake damage.
“Tilapia has been identified as one of the top 100 most invasive species in the world,” the committee’s recommendation states. “If tilapia escape from the facility and cause damage to native or sport fish populations or their habitats, it will be your [the Sacketts’] responsibility to restore the damage incurred as a result of the escapement.”
Sackett has already found what he believes is an appropriate site 2 miles south of Fountain Green and three-fourths of a mile east of state Route 132. The property has no flood risks and moderate earthquake vulnerability, he said.
The committee also suggested other environmental safeguards such as:
• Prohibiting the sale or transfer of live fish from the facility.
• Having DWR approve the species of tilapia brought into the facility.
• Posting a bond and taking financial responsibility for any reclamation efforts if native species are affected.
Sackett said he is willing to abide by all the requirements.