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Taking tilapia breeding to the next level in LATAM

Genetics Bacterial diseases Pathogens +26 more

After leading a management buyout of Spring Genetics from Benchmark, Hideyoshi Segovia Uno is working hard to help ensure the international tilapia sector – particularly in Latin America (LATAM) – succeeds, in the face of a raft of emerging challenges.

by Senior editor, The Fish Site
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Hideyoshi Segovia Uno, CEO of Spring Genetics

Segovia Uno has Mexican and Salvadorean roots and cut his teeth working for one El Salvador's largest tilapia producers. He joined Akvaforsk Genetics Centre’s tilapia operation (which was later to become Spring Genetics) in 2012, in order to commercialise the fish from their breeding nucleus.

The tilapia sector is very diverse, which is part of the reason it continues to fascinate Segovia Uno.

“The tilapia sector is still very segmented/fragmented. I have one customer who only has two ponds but tilapia farming has changed her life – it’s enabled her to educate her children. By contrast there are also very large players like Regal Springs. We aim to deal with the big players, but it’s also very motivating and exciting to be able to help people in developing countries like the one that I come from,” he reflects.

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“Navigating challenges becomes especially intricate considering that tilapia are cultivated in over 127 countries, each with distinct socio-economic contexts and technological capacities. A universal, high-tech solution may not be immediately feasible or realistic for every producer. Instead, there is a pressing demand for extensive training and education programmes to disseminate best practices and innovative approaches tailored to the specific needs of diverse communities,” he adds.

In the decade since Segovia Uno’s been involved – during which Spring Genetics was bought and sold by Benchmark – he has helped the company build up a solid customer base for their broodstock: mainly across Latin America, but also in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Segovia Uno is now running the company in partnership with Carlos Lopez and Veso and they are currently producing 6 million tilapia a year at their site in Miami, where they are commercialising the 11th generation of their breeding programme. This builds on the foundations of 13 previous generations, stretching right back to the original genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) strain, which was developed in 1988 by partners including Akvaforsk – a reflection of the company’s pedigree.

Segovia Uno (left) and Carlos Lopez (right) with some of the Spring Genetics team

Spring Genetics currently produce 6 million tilapia a year at their site in Miami, where they are commercialising the 11th generation of their breeding programme © Spring Genetics

Responding to bacterial threats

As the tilapia sector – and the challenges it faces – have evolved, so have the priorities of Spring Genetics’ customers, in terms of the traits they’re seeking, according to Segovia Uno.

“Growth is always a must – we have one of the fastest growing genetics in the market. But since 2021, the emergence of disease caused by Streptococcus agalactiae 1a in Latin America, we’ve been selecting fish that are resistant to it. The crisis is making producers increase their emphasis on biosecurity, animal welfare and good genetics,” he explains.

The new strain of the bacteria has been particularly alarming due to its ability to strike fish at any stage in the production cycle.

“Usually Streptococcus agalactiae only effects fish when they are 200 g or over, but this new mutation is killing fish from 1 g upwards and it’s also affecting broodstock, destroying the gonads of the females, leading to zero production,” says Segovia Uno.

And the rapid spread of the disease is another cause for concern.

“The tilapia market is so informal and the illegal importation of breeding fish has caused the disease to spread quickly. In Mexico production is going to fall to 50-60 percent of what it was; Central American producers are losing a lot of money too,” he notes.

Tilapia bred by Spring Genetics

Since the emergence of Streptococcus agalactiae 1a in Latin America in 2021 – a strain of bacteria that kills fish from 1 g upwards and affects broodstock by destroying the gonads of the females – Spring Genetics has been selecting fish that are resistant to it. © Spring Genetics

In response to this new outbreak, Spring Genetics is looking to breed tilapia that have been selected to be resistant to a number of pathogens including Streptococcus iniae, Streptococcus agalactiae Ib, Streptococcus agalactiae 1a, Franciscella orientalis and tilapia lake virus (TiLV).

According to Segovia Uno, they identified quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for Streptococcus iniae and tilapia lake virus during 2023 and these should help to fast-track breeding programmes that include resistance to these conditions.

“This year we managed to get an isolate of the bacteria and have been doing challenge testing in collaboration with the USDA’s aquatic research services. We just finished the trials three weeks ago, with pretty good results and are now waiting on the results of the genetic analysis,” Segovia Uno notes.

Segovia Uno in the Spring Genetics' lab

Spring Genetics is looking to breed tilapia that have been selected to be resistant to a number of pathogens, including Streptococcus iniae, Streptococcus agalactiae Ib, Streptococcus agalactiae 1a, Franciscella orientalis and tilapia lake virus (TiLV) © Spring Genetics

Production systems: trends in the sector

Segovia Uno has been keeping a close eye on key trends in the industry, especially in the Americas.

“What I see growing are IPRS [in-pond raceway systems], which were developed by Auburn University here in the US. There are now over 200 in Colombia alone. They’re not for everyone, as you need a lot of electricity, but they’re super-efficient and very environmentally friendly – having a huge pond with small raceways inside means that you only need to change the water every five years or so,” he explains.

“Cage culture is going to remain important for the industry as it’s cost-efficient. But, on the other hand, farmers have less control and it’s becoming more vulnerable with all the new diseases. Another problem I’ve seen in countries like Mexico is that farms above hydro-electric dams can be hit by rapid drops in water levels when more electricity is needed. Sometimes the water can drop 40 m without any warning,” he adds.

Segovia Uno and Lopez undertaking some building work at Spring Genetics' facilities in Miami

Meanwhile, he argues that traditional earthen ponds still have a place too.

“In Brazil there are two aquaculture cooperatives – CopaCol and CVale – and between them they probably produce 80,000 -120,000 tonnes of tilapia a year, much of which come from ponds,” he notes.

One avenue that Segovia-Uno has been investigating is developing strains of tilapia that are tolerant to salt water – in order to open up the possibility of farming the species in the sea.

“I know that some genetics companies in Asia have been developing strains that tolerate salinity levels of up to 35ppt. And, in the Middle East, there’s a strain Tilapia spirulus that also tolerates high salinity,” he notes.

“We’ve only tested our tilapia so far up to 14 ppt, but I think it’s coming and it’s an interesting market. Hopefully we can do it in the future, but it might be a legal and environmental challenge, as they can be considered an invasive species in some countries,” he adds.

Hope for the future?

Segovia Uno is very aware of the challenges facing the industry and notes that global warming is one of the biggest issues facing many tilapia producers, with farmers in some areas recording water temperatures of up to 40°C – leading to higher mortality rates and increased pathogen challenges. Meanwhile, in Latin America, he points to a shortage of fingerlings being another key issue.

However, he is confident that such challenges can be overcome.

“I think tilapia sector is still a bit immature. I think we need more standardisation and professionalisation – like salmon and poultry. We need to focus more on biosecurity and animal welfare. And we also need to think what the consumer needs. It’s important to improve the reputation of tilapia and look more into value-added options too,” he argues.

“Addressing the multifaceted challenges in tilapia production requires a collaborative and adaptive approach, where industry stakeholders, researchers and producers work in tandem to foster sustainable practices, improve biosecurity measures, enhance animal welfare standards, and provide accessible education. This collective effort is integral to ensuring the resilience, efficiency and ethical advancement of the global tilapia sector,” he concludes.

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