St. Peter’s fish may be more familiar than you think.

By Dr. Rafael D. Guererro III

In our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we visited the Sea of Galilee in Israel where our Lord Jesus Christ performed many miracles. The Sea of Galilee is actually a freshwater lake also known as Lake Tiberias, Lake Kinneret, or Lake Gennesaret. The lake has an area of 166.7 square kilometers (the largest in the Middle East) and an average depth of 25.6 meters. Being 209-215 meters below sea level, it is also the “lowest freshwater lake on Earth.”

In Matthew 17:24-27 of the New Testament, Simon, a fisherman who was renamed Peter, was instructed by our Lord to catch a fish from the Sea of Galilee in order to pay the temple tax. Using hook and line, Peter caught a fish with a shekel in its mouth. The said fish has been referred to as ‘St. Peter’s fish’.

What really is the St. Peter’s fish? According to the Fishing and Agricultural Division of the Ministry of Water and Agriculture of Israel, there are 27 fish species (belonging to 10 families) in the Sea of Galilee of which 19 are native and 8 are introduced. Fishermen of the lake classify the fish into the “musht” (tilapias), sardine (herring-like), biny (carp-like), and catfish.

(Story continues after photoset.)

The author at the Sea of Galilee. (Inset photos, from top): “St. Peter’s Fish,” as shown in an Israeli tourism brochure. A dish of “St. Peter’s Fish” served at a restaurant on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

It is the common belief that St. Peter’s fish was one of the tilapias in the lake, most probably the Galilean tilapia or Sarotherodon galilaeus. The other tilapia species in the lake are the blue tilapia or Oreochromis aureus, and the red belly tilapia or Tilapia zillii.

While fishing was a bustling industry in the Sea of Galilee during our Lord’s ministry, it is now a foregone activity because of overfishing. The catch for tilapia declined from 270 metric tons (mt) in 2005 to only 7.3 mt in 2009. The ban on fishing was imposed in January 2011 by the Israeli government.

With historical and spiritual tourism being a major industry in Israel, grilled St. Peter’s fish is one of the gourmet dishes served in the restaurants along the Sea of Galilee.

When we had our lunch at one such restaurant, we noticed that the big-sized “St. Peter’s fish”
served was a Nile tilapia or Oreochromis niloticus, also found in the Philippines and other
countries.

An Israeli friend who is a noted aquaculturist told us that because the original “St. Peter’s
fish” from the lake is no longer available, locally farmed and even imported tilapia are now
cooked in the restaurants. About 65% of the seafood consumed in Israel is imported while the
rest is produced locally.

With Israel’s arid environment (60% desert) receiving only 50 millimeters of rainfall annually,
water management is of prime importance. The country taps 25% of its water supply from the
Sea of Galilee, which has underwater springs. Desalinized and recycled water are the other
sources.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2015 issue.