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.'
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.
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.
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.
Spotted tilapia are a prohibited species in Florida (68-5.003, Florida Administrative Code).
Image Credit: © Diane Peebles