Brazilian tilapia producers are targeting a 15 percent increase in production in 2020 as they bid to bounce back from a relatively modest year by their own high standards.

In previous years, tilapia production growth in Brazil has run to double digits but only increased 8 percent in 2019 to 432,149 metric tons, with supply issues linked to low stocking levels restricting stronger growth.

As 2018 dawned, producers raised production, responding to the highest-ever market prices seen in the second half of 2017 backed by low feed prices.

But the laws of supply and demand meant this couldn’t last, and in the second half of 2018 and opening six months of 2019, producers found themselves handling too many fish.

They were forced to cut back on stocking or shut down completely in the face of mounting losses linked to oversupply.

Saving them from despair, a silver lining has appeared in the form of a return to higher prices fueled by reduced availability and buoyant demand.

This has been helped by higher meat prices driven by demand from China, making their products reasonably priced alternatives to beef, pork and chicken.

This is now fueling optimism for well beyond 2020, Francisco Medeiros, president of aquaculture producers trade group Peixe BR told IntraFish.

“Tilapia production should return to increase in the region of 13-15 percent for 2020, reflecting the fact that fingerling producers are already receiving orders” he said.

“We have started 2020 with an industry thinking differently, structuring itself differently not only for 2020 but for the decade that is just beginning.”

Part of that thinking is the arrival of automation in Brazil, which producers expect will lift productivity per worker rates.

“We have invested quite a lot in automation,” said Roberto Haug, CEO at Sao Paulo headquartered GeneSeas, which produced 15,000 metric tons of tilapia in 2019.

The southern state of Parana consolidated its stranglehold as Brazil’s largest tilapia producing region last year.

Peixe BR Board President Ricardo Neukirchener said the rest of the country would have much to gain by adopting the practices of Parana’s small-scale producers working together as one large cooperative.

Neukirchner recently made the switch to oversee tilapia producer Aquabel’s expansion of its genetics business in South America, after being replaced as CEO by Gustavo Crosara.

He said tilapia industry growth in Brazil is not held back by funding but other factors.

“We don’t have a lack of money in the financial markets, we have a lack of environmental licences.”

The Brazilian aquaculture industry has long called for an overhaul and streamlining of the environmental permitting process to help it capitalize on its potential.

This is echoed by Muricio Nogueira Pessoa, director of the development department of Brazil’s agriculture ministry.

“Those states who don’t sort out environmental licences are the ones that will lag behind,” he said.

Overall Brazilian aquaculture production increased just under 5 percent to 758,006 metric tons in 2019.

Tilapia accounted for 57 percent of that total, followed by native species including native species such as tambaqui, pintado, pirarucu, (38 percent) and others such as trout, carp and pangasius (5 percent).