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How To Clean Tilapia

Cleaning tilapia is not an easy task but with lots of practice you can get good at it.   When you clean tilapia your goal  is always to get the most fish off of the bone as possible.  A well practiced fish cleaner can usually expect to yield between 25 to 35 percent of actual meat from the fish.

Having the right tool for the job is especially true in cleaning tilapia.  It takes good sharp knifes and various tools to clean tilapia well, below is some of the equipment we recommend for cleaning fish.

how to clean tilapia

Equipment Needed

Sharp fillet knife
Stiff Steak Knife
Large cutting board
Fish Skinning Pliers
Chefs apron (optional)



 Keeping It Fresh

Before you ever take out your knife, ensure that your fish are kept in good condition after you get them.  Whether you take them from the wild or harvest them from an aquaculture farm or an aquaponics system, keep tilapia (and all other types of caught fish) fresh for longer using either ice or salt packing.

If you only want to transport your catch a few miles and have it ready by the end of the day, keep the fish alive for as long as possible in a tub, then put them in a chest full of ice and water for at least 15 minutes.  If you intend to eat your fish days or even weeks out, you want to rub them down with salt, covering as much of the tilapia as possible, in order to minimize the amount of bacteria that can get into the meat.

how to clean tilapiaClean the Area and the Fish

When you clean a tilapia, you want the area that you are working at to be clean and stable.  Hopefully there is no one out there trying to clean their tilapia on a boat, that could end very badly.   We recommend you use a large cutting board and that you work outside on a sturdy table or bench that is by a water spout if possible.

It is also recommended that you wash your hands ahead of time so that there is no bait residue getting into your meal.  Likewise, you want to be able to clean both your hands and your work station as soon as the job is done.  Rinse off the tilapia first with cold water to eliminate anything that might have become attached to the scales.  Avoid cross contamination with live fish and/or the already cut fillets.

Making The Cuts

  1. If you are going to harvest the throat, scale the throat with the Stiff Steak Knife.
  2. Lay the fish flat on its side on a cutting board.
  3. Start at the forehead of the fish and make a cut that follows the gill plate, behind the pectoral fin down to the pelvic fin.
  4. Turn the fish over and make the same cut on the other side.  Then you should be able to twist off the head.
  5. Next you want to make a cut on top of the fish along the dorsal fin and that is parallel to the spine.  Make sure you cut as close to the dorsal fin bones as possible.
  6. Once you reach the back bone, lift your knife slight to go over the rib bones cutting all the way to the belly.
  7. Now you want to make a cut on the belly starting at the head of the body and ending at the tail.  Make sure to miss and get as close to the anal bones as possible.
  8. Place the fish back on it’s side and with your fillet knife at about a 35 degree angle start slicing the flesh and at the same time pull the fish from ribs.  Leave the fillet attached.
  9. Turn over the fillet, start cutting from tail to the head by putting downward pressure and squeezing the meat away from the skin.
  10. Remove the pin bones and any leftover skin.

Note: If you would like the entire fish instead of a filet, you can freeze the fish or immediately cook it with the skeleton in place.

Video:  Tips on how to clean Tilapia and on how to improve your fillet yields.

Nothing Wasted

Compost the fish head and entrails or use them for a nice fish stock.  Some bait shops may purchase fish them for fishermen who are going after a bigger catch.

Also, it is highly recommended that you use your fillet knife for the sole purpose of cleaning fish and keep it sharp using a sharpening steel.


Next Learn How To Cook Tilapia