Aquaponic Tilapia Harvesting: The Deed Has Been Done
For the first time in my life I killed an animal in order to eat it. And it was delicious.
Those of you who have been following my aquaponic gardening journey know that I have struggled with the notion of harvesting the fish. Even as a child when I used to go fishing with my dad, I was the kid who would try to keep them alive in the cooler and then in the bathtub when we got home. As an adult I became a pescetarian a decade ago, in part for health reasons, in part for environmental reasons and in part because I couldn’t stand the notion of sentient animals being slaughtered. The fact that we continued to eat fish at all was only because of a compromise agreement with my poor husband.
And yet, as an educator and advocate for aquaponics I often get asked about eating the fish. Have you ever eaten your fish? How would you kill them? What do they taste like? When I reply that I haven’t quite managed to “do the deed” yet because I’ve grown somewhat fond of them, the women generally smile at me knowingly and confess “I don’t think I could do it either” and the men look at me with disappointment and wonder how I could be such a wimp.
So when my dear friend and fellow aquapon, John, offered to come over and help me through the process, I took him up on it. After all, John was the guy who introduced me to this whole aquaponics thing in the first place so it seemed somehow fitting that he would also be there to take me into full aquaponic adulthood.
At 1:00 p.m. yesterday afternoon, John showed up at my door with a big smile on his face and a leather sheathed boning knife in his hand. We took the bag of ice from the freezer and a cooler from the garage and headed to the greenhouse. He asked how I was feeling about all this. I thought about it and replied that these fish are getting so big and so old (some might be from a batch of fingerlings from over two years ago) that they will eventually just die anyway…so they might as well be our dinners. John agreed, grabbed the big net, and set about the task of catching the biggest fish as they all swam frantically around the tank.
As each fish was caught, it was sent to the ice bath we had created in the cooler with a “thank you” for giving up its life for our food (one of my favorite Native American traditions). While this isn’t the fastest way to kill a fish, we agreed that it was faster and more humane than asphyxiating them and easier on our Boulder- liberal, yoga-practicing, quasi-Buddhist, peace-loving psyches than hammering them over the head or driving a knife through their brains!
When five fish had met their icy graves we decided to take a break, sit on the deck and catch up with each other’s lives for about 15 minutes - just to be sure the fish were truly dead. Next, the cooler was hauled to the kitchen, cutting boards and knifes laid out, along side a bag for the guts, and the “processing” commenced. John cheerfully grabbed the first fish out of the cooler, slit it from anus to sternum, and pulled out the guts with only the slightest grimace. The fish looked so fresh, and so alive that I would not have been surprised if the heart had still been beating…but I’m really glad it wasn’t! John then filleted the fish, and removed the skin using techniques he had learned on YouTube. And beautiful fillets they were!
After John converted one more fish into a pair of fillets it was my turn. I plunged my hand into the ice water and grabbed a fish that looked so alive that I actually watched it for a while to see if it would move. I then had to cover its eyes in order to go about the task of gutting it, but once the guts were removed the filleting was only a technical challenge; not an emotional one. This was familiar territory since I have filleted whole fish before that I’ve purchased from the grocery store.
The next fish was easier, and the challenge of capturing as much flesh off the bone into the fillet became the focus; not the emotions of dealing with a recently living being. John called this “normalization” and reaching this state was his goal for the afternoon. He was hoping that after doing this together that this process would lose its emotional charge for both of us and become a normal part of being an aquaponic gardener. I think we accomplished that goal.
When we finished, John selected a fillet and a couple carcasses for soup stock to take home, and the rest of the carcasses were dumped in a stock pot with some carrots, celery, onions, and a couple bay leaves.
What happened to the fillets? They were the centerpiece of dinner with friends that night. Our friend Jim is a chef, and he took the fillets, lightly floured them, sautéed them in olive oil and butter, then finished them off with a bit of lemon. Served over a bed of just-picked garden greens with a grilled Vidalia onion; they were divine. Everyone at the table couldn’t believe how good the tilapia was; unlike any tilapia any of us had ever had before.
And the stock? Part of it went into a miso soup that night, and the rest went into the freezer. I received the following wonderful email from Jim this morning with the subject line “Blog post for today: Don’t forget the soup!“
The fish came out so good that I was worried the soup would get overlooked. You must have simmered it for only a short time because the flavor was wonderful and not at all fishy (note: I actually simmered it for four hours). That can be hard to do but it gets easier with really fresh fish. I think the stock would adapt well to many applications for experienced cooks. I thought of a light garlic, shallot, and saffron soup. I’d make it with the tofu or maybe shrimp, and the chive garnish. The broth would be great with fresh peeled and seeded tomatoes and a bit of chervil or act as a base for a more hearty soup with potato, tomato, and the fish itself. I’d use tarragon in that soup. Just some thoughts as I drifted off last night. Thanks again for a wonderful evening. Jim
I am at peace with my decision to harvest these fish. They lived well, died humanely, were treated with dignity, and provided us with an exceptional meal with friends and family that will be remembered. I must admit I looked at the remaining large fish in the tank a little differently today and gave them some extra food this morning. Eat, eat my pretties…