The Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), the lowest freshwater lake in the world, is famously mentioned in the Bible. It is the site where Jesus said, “I will make you fishers of men.” According to the Bible, four of the Apostles – Andrew, James, John, and Peter – worked as fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Of course, Jesus himself ate fish from the Sea of Galilee, including carp and tilapia (St. Peter’s fish). The bones of these fish have been identified in local archaeological excavations. Check out the article about the “Jesus Boat” at Ginosar.
Since the time of Jesus, fishing has been a traditional activity for the people who live by the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Lake Gennesaret. The only significant freshwater lake in Israel, the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee have been home to various of flora and fauna, which have supported a major commercial fishery for more than 2,000 years.
According to a Galilean fisherman, kibbutznik, author and Sea of Galilee expert Mendel Nun (1918 – 2010), there are 18 species of fish indigenous to the Sea of Galilee, ten of which are commercially important. But the Fishing and Agricultural Division of the Ministry of Water and Agriculture of Israel, on the other hand, lists 27 species of fish (belonging to ten families) in the lake, 19 of which are indigenous and eight are introduced from elsewhere.
Some of the most commercially important fish in the Sea of Galilee include:
Tilapia (also known locally as musht) is one of the most commercially important fish in the area. This group of tilapia also includes the Galilean tilapia, tilapia Galilea, or St. Peter’s fish (Sarotherodon galilaeus), the redbelly tilapia (Tilapia zillii) and the blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus).
The Galilean tilapia or St. Peter’s fish is the most commercially caught type of tilapia. According to legend, it was St. Peter who first caught a tilapia on Sea of Galilee. The fish was fed to the people of Tabgha (an ancient town on the north-western coast of the sea) by Jesus. This is where tilapia got its other name. It is also separated from meat according to Lenten standards.
The short jaw tristramella (Trristramella simonis) is another species of tilapia. It is also commonly caught as a food fish in the Sea of Galilee. This fish prefers little or no movement. Unfortunately, the short jaw tristramella is now considered a threatened species.
Sardine is also known as Kinneret bleak or Kinneret sardine (Acanthobrama terraesanctae). According to Nun, “at the height of the fishing season, tens of tons of sardines are caught every night.”
In the New Testament era, these fish were preserved by pickling. Magdala (Mary’s birthplace) was known as the center of the sardine fishing industry.
Biny (or barbel)
According to Nun, “This group consists of three species of the carp family.” The two most common species of biny are the Barbus longiceps and the Barbus canis. Both biny species are eaten by Jews for Shabbat meals and feasts.
Other fish, such as catfish, are also commercially caught in the Sea of Galilee. The fish is commonly eaten by the residents in the area, but are not considered kosher as they don’t have scales and are bottom feeders, thus making them “unclean.”
What is the biggest fish in the Sea of Galilee?
So far, a total of 153 carp have been caught and released. One of them was a carp reaching the weight of 11.28 kilograms. The Sea of Galilee is also home to world-class carp-fishing competition.
Depleting fish numbers?
While fishing was a bustling industry during the time of Jesus, it almost became a foregone activity mainly due to overfishing, drought, and increased extraction of water. Tilapia catch declined dramatically from 270 metric tons (mt) in 2005 to only 7.3 mt in 2009. Due to the continually declining fish numbers, the Israeli government imposed a two-year ban on fishing in 2011.
In 2013, more than 600,000 tilapia were brought and released into the Sea of Galilee to boost fish numbers, increase the lake’s biodiversity and clear its waters of toxins coming from seaweed, which is the tilapia’s food source, acting as biofilters to balance the lake’s ecosystem. The fish were raised from pools at a farm in Kibbutz Ginosar before being introduced to the Sea of Galilee.
The original St. Peter’s fish in the Sea of Galilee cannot be found anymore. Nowadays, locally farmed and even imported tilapia are cooked and served in many restaurants in Israel. Around 65% of the seafood consumed in Israel is imported and the rest grown or farmed locally.