The Ugly Truth About The Tilapia Boom

Earlier this month, TikTok user @maddyjdavis posted a video about her mom’s obsession with tilapia in 2006 and 2007. What seemed like an innocuous observation turned out to be an example of a widespread phenomenon. Over a thousand users flooded the video’s comments to share their own experiences eating lots of tilapia growing up.

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Comments under the post include: “Just brought back some repressed memories,” “I gag thinking about it 🤢,” and “So we all have the same mom?”

My own mother had a tilapia phase in the aughts. Nearly every trip to Costco involved picking up boxes of inexpensive frozen fillets. I was never a fan and remember attempting to mask the flavor of the fish by drowning it in any condiment I could find.

For many, tilapia was a low-cost source of protein during a period of economic instability. But how did this fish become so affordable and widely available that it seemed to appear in almost everyone’s kitchen in the aughts?

To find the answer, we need to look at the involvement of prison labor. Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the state’s Department of Corrections, launched a fishery work program in 2001. Tilapia is native to the warm waters of North Africa, but CCI found a way to farm it in the cool air of Colorado.

Using prison inmates as cheap labor naturally kept CCI’s overhead low. In just four years, CCI doubled the size of their operations and began to dominate the U.S. wholesale market. As Pacific Standard reported in 2015, Colorado prison operations produced 1.2 million pounds of tilapia per year back then. And because they farmed tilapia in tanks without additional hormones or additives, CCI labeled their product organic and sold it to retailers as large as Whole Foods Market at a low price. After significant public outcry, Whole Foods ended their professional relationship with CCI in 2016.

CCI touted the upsides of employing incarcerated people, claiming it benefitted both the inmates and taxpayers. The company claimed to “teach and develop work ethics often found underdeveloped in today’s inmate,” reduce the cost of incarceration to the tune of “$9,000,000 per year saved by our state taxpayers,” and “provide job advancement similar to that found in private employment.”

But prison work programs bear little resemblance to typical workplace environments. According to the ACLU, incarcerated workers are not protected by minimum wage laws, overtime regulations, union rights, or workplace-safety protections.

At Colorado Correctional Industries, workers would get paid pennies on the dollar. The Colorado State Legislature reported in 2017 that CCI’s incarcerated workers earned an average of 84 cents a day during a 34-hour work week.

The Colorado Department of Corrections told me an email that they quietly closed CCI’s fishing facilities in 2021. After a law was signed in 2022, inmates who work at off-site programs are now legally entitled to at least minimum wage.

As for the tilapia industry now, U.S. production has decreased significantly, and a large portion of the frozen fillets you can buy are farmed in Asia and Latin America. The tilapia boom nearly two decades ago, however, doesn’t have the same impact as it once did.

Researchers at the Mississippi State University note that U.S. tilapia consumption has been steadily declining since 2014. And since CCI first launched their tilapia program, the fish’s reputation has been tarnished by accusations of its lack of nutrition, unsanitary farming environments, and unethical labor practices.

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