A Viral TikTok Revealed A Dark Truth About The Tilapia Boom

There was something fishy about the American tilapia boom during the early 2000s, and a TikTok video has triggered questions about it that led to a dark truth.

The new millennium's first decade was a time of speculation built on a false sense of security preceding the great recession, inflation, and a change in consumer spending. In retrospect, it was also a time when some TikTokers became aware of their mothers' distasteful obsession with tilapia.

Maddy Davis triggered a flurry of similar sentiments when she asked if anybody else on the social media platform had suffered similar woes. According to one netizen, the infamous fish featured on their dinner table at least three times a week for a year. Some American homemakers tasked with the buying of groceries were going through a "tilapia phase", and imposing it upon their unenthusiastic children while placating them with empty rhetoric like, "Fish is good for you," and, "It's brain food." But, was it really the nutritional benefits of the fish that made parents of that decade endure their offspring's sulks at dinner?

Tilapia's rise to popularity

Tilapia — dubbed "the garbage fish" because of its indiscriminate hoover-like diet — can thrive on almost anything. As such, it is cheap to rear, per Aquaristland. Tilapia is not endemic to the United States — it hails from Africa, but it is popular in the American fisheries industry for its larger profit margins.

A prominent fish farming company in Colorado took tilapia farming to a new level when it partnered with Colorado's Correctional Industries (CCI), per Seafood Source. This transpired in 2001 when the CCI supplied a workforce of low-paid inmates, which made their wage bill lighter and their profit margins broader, as Delish notes. And, because the fish were free of hormones, they were classified as organic and supplied to Wholefoods. According to Vice, the CCI paid inmates between 74 cents and $4 per day. This disadvantaged competing tilapia producers and allowed the CCI to control the market.

In the years that led up to the great recession, it was a cheap source of proteins in a cash-strapped society. While it seldom suited children's palates, it was easier on the parent's pockets, who during that period could not always cater to preference.