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Time is ripe for 'aquatic chicken'

A DISH by the exotic name of Tilapia Niloticus could be gracing the dining tables of the future if intensive fishing continues to deplete the world's stocks.

This obscure African freshwater fish could become an 'aquatic chicken', replacing such traditional fare as cod and haddock.

Patrick Franklin, a director of MacAlister Elliott and Partners, an international fisheries consultancy, told the meeting: 'It is ominous there is almost no cod or haddock in UK waters this year; the Iceland fleet is tied up through lack of fish; there is no cod in Greenland; and Grand Banks off Newfoundland, one of the great cod fisheries of the world, has been closed to fishing altogether.'

Around the world, 97 million tons of fish were extracted from the oceans and freshwater fisheries in 1990, the last year for which figures were available. 'Can the wild fish resources of the planet stand this pressure?' Mr Franklin asked. 'The answer is almost certainly not.'

At least 10 per cent of the world's fish catch was wasted and about 30 per cent went on fish meal for animal feed and fertiliser.

'There is thus a correlation between the quantities of anchovy caught off South America and the price of chickens in your supermarket,' Mr Franklin said.

Any increase in fish production must come from aquaculture (fish farming). This was where Tilapia could come into its own. It was hardy, it grew fast, and it was an omnivore. Like the chicken, it could effectively live on kitchen scraps 'converting low-grade material into something edible'.

The fish was already being farmed in the US, with about 1,000 tons a year sold.

Mr Franklin said he had also seen Tilapia for sale on the fish counter of Sainsbury's in Winchester, labelled St Peter Fish.

Tilapia were being farmed commercially in Belgium where warm water from a power station was used to promote rapid growth.

They do present one problem. Although they grow rapidly, they suddenly become more interested in sex than in further growth. Properly managed, they can reach half a kilogram (1lb), whereas left to themselves they only grow to 100 grams (3.5oz). You end up with 'a pond full of very small fish', Mr Franklin said.

Intensive fish farming had made great strides in countries like Britain over recent years, but the farms tended to raise carnivorous fish which relied on expensive fish meal.

An alternative was to switch to farming herbivorous fish like carp. Carp were farmed throughout much of Asia, mostly in a small-scale way which produced 4 million tons a year.