Native to West Africa, the Spotted Tilapia has been introduced in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California. In the U.S. it was first collected in 1974 in Florida. It has since rapidly became the most abundant fish in the canal system of Miami-Dade County and is now widespread south of Lake Okeechobee.
Spotted tilapia prefers slow-flowing canals, ponds, and lakes. This species feels most secure near structure, such as aquatic vegetation, vegetation lined shores or other cover. They are tolerant of brackish water and have rapidly expanded their range in the box-cut canals of South Florida and thrive in the warm springs of Nevada.
This cichlid sports a short rounded nose and three anal spines. While similar in body shape to native sunfish, they tend to be stouter. Coloration is light yellowish to greenish bronze with six to nine bars or spots on the sides. The tail fin is fan shaped. Frequently they have reddish markings on the chin or throat area. This tilapia can grow over a foot and up to three pounds.
Spotted tilapias are substrate spawners, preferring the clean underside of rocky surfaces to lay up to 400 bluish eggs. Like other cichlids, both parents guard the nesting area and young aggressively. They can spawn year around, but the cooler months between November and March account for most spawning activity. Spotted tilapias typically form breeding colonies.
This species is omnivorous, feeding on wide variety of food items, although mostly on detritus, diatoms, and algae. In productive environments, spotted tilapia also feed on phytoplankton.
Spotted Tilapia in Florida
Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Appearance: Light yellow to bronze with 6-9 bars or spots along side; stouter but similar body and mouth shape to native sunfishes; small ones tend to have bars that turn into spots in larger fish (see photo); some have reddish markings on the chin or throat area, especially when spawning; sometimes erroneously referred to as an 'oscar.'
Range: First collected in 1974, it rapidly became the most abundant fish in the canal system of Miami-Dade County where it made up about 25% of the fishes by number and weight; now widespread south of Lake Okeechobee; so abundant that butterfly peacock was introduced to help control it. Native range is West Africa.
Habitat: Prefers slow-flowing canals, ponds, and lakes; common throughout south Florida; may be increasing in some areas, but not as abundant in Miami-Dade County as in 1980s.
Spawning Habitats: Unlike other tilapia in Florida, this tilapia is a substrate spawner that lays about 2,000 sticky eggs on hard, flat surfaces; both parents guard young aggressively until about one inch long; sexually mature at 7 inches; some observed spawning year around, but most spawning seems to occur in cooler months between November and March.
Feeding Habits: Omnivorous, feeding on wide variety of food items, although most stomachs contain detritus, diatoms, algae, and sand indicating this tilapia, like most others, feed low on the food chain.
Age and Growth: Grows to 13 inches and about 3 pounds; males grow larger with all fish over 10 inches typically being males.
Sporting Quality: Commonly caught by cane-pole anglers, but not as aggressive as most native sunfishes; no bag or size limits, but must not be possessed alive (see note below).
Special Note: Possession and transport of live tilapia in Florida is illegal without a special permit (except blue tilapia); can only be possessed if dead, so anglers wanting to eat this fish should immediately place them on ice.