Changing a fish’s name to make it sound more appetizing is probably more common than you think. Why? Well, over the past 50 years, cod, swordfish, and bluefin tuna populations have fallen by roughly 90 percent due to overfishing. As those fish populations shrank, the seafood industry began looking at other fish to market. While some of those newer-to-market fish are delicious, they have -- or had, anyway -- unappealing names.
Another example: Officials at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and their counterparts in neighboring states are working to change the name of the Asian carp to something more appealing in hopes that people will begin eating the fish. That way -- the officials hope -- the invasive fish’s numbers will be reduced, which may help prevent it from making its way into Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes.
Let’s take a look at how some popular fish got their more-recognizable names.
1. Patagonian Toothfish, Now Chilean Sea Bass
The Patagonian Toothfish is a large fish that looks menacing. Found in the colder waters of the South Atlantic as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the fish can reach weights of over 200 pounds, a British Sea Fishing article explains.
Today, the fish is prized for its quality and taste. Indeed, restaurants pay “a small fortune for the opportunity to add this fish to their menus.”
That wasn’t always the case, however. Consumers weren’t too fond of the name Patagonian Toothfish. American fish merchant Lee Lantz is recognized as coining the alternate name, Chilean Sea Bass, and it’s proved quite popular.
2. Slimehead, Now Orange Roughy
The Slimehead, which can live to be 150 years old, is a deep-water predator found in most oceans around the world, Oceana explains. But why the name Slimehead? Easy, the fish has a network of “muciferous canals” in its head. These mucus-filled canals are part of a sensory system that helps the fish sense prey as well as avoid predators.
Realizing that people would be unlikely to eat a fish called Slimehead, the seafood industry re-branded the fish Orange Roughy. Obviously the decision worked as Orange roughy has become a popular item on menus around the world.
3. Stumpknocker, Now Spotted Sunfish
Spotted Sunfish is an apt name for this fish, which is found along the coastal plain of South Carolina. As the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources explains, the Spotted Sunfish has noticeable lines of distinct black spots that are clearly seen along its head and body.
But why was the fish called Stumpknocker? The Spotted Sunfish is usually found in areas with dense vegetation and submerged logs and stumps, such as swamps and slow rivers. It most likely got the name Stumpknocker from feeding on insects attached to the tree stumps and submerged logs, the South Carolina DNR explains.
4. Goosefish, Now Monkfish
Goosefish were once thought to be unmarketable because, well let’s face it: They are ugly. They have teeth like needles, an over-sized head, and some people think they look like large toads or frogs. However, once the fish became known as Monkfish, and fishermen began filleting meat from the fish’s tail, demand increased 500 percent, Global Citizen reports.
Okay, but what does it taste like? A Food and Wine article explains that “cleaned and cooked, monkfish becomes wonderful, with sweet flavor and firm texture that’s earned them the nickname of ‘poor man’s lobster.’”
5. Yelloweye Rockfish, Now Red Snapper
It’s easy to see how this fish got its name. The fish are either an orange-yellow or orange-red color and are “easily recognized by the bright yellow of their eyes,” explains the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One of the best-known and prized fish in Alaska’s rockfish species, these fish can grow to 36 inches in length.
Although some people refer to the fish as Red Snapper, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game points out that these fish shouldn’t be confused with Red Snapper from the Gulf of Mexico. Those are another species of fish entirely. That said, Yelloweye Rockfish may also be called Pacific Red Snapper, Red Rock Cod, and Yellow Belly.
6. Dolphinfish, Now Mahi Mahi
If you like seafood, you’ve probably had Mahi Mahi -- although it may have been called Dorado. However, it is a bit of a mystery why Dolphins and Dolphinfish have similar names because they don’t look at all like each other. While Dolphins can grow quite large -- six or more feet in length -- Dolphinfish only reach maximum lengths of around 63 inches, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission explains.
Dolphinfish came to be known as Mahi Mahi to prevent the moral outrage of diners looking at a menu and thinking of dolphins, which of course, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Instead, the name Mahi Mahi -- or strong strong in the Polynesian language -- has come to be used for the fish, a Sciencing article explains.
7. Mudbug, Now Crayfish, Crawfish, Or Crawdad
Depending on where you live, you may use the name Crayfish, Crawfish, or even Crawdad for the small freshwater crustaceans found all over the world that closely resemble lobsters. The two are indeed related, by the way.
It appears the earliest documented use of the name Mudbug was in 1955 in Louisiana and eastern Texas. However, a Click2houston story reports that according to the research of Sam Irwin, author of Louisiana Crawfish, A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture contacted a marketing firm to help promote Crawfish. According to Irwin, “They strictly said, ‘Do not use Mudbug if you want to have a larger presence.”
Nevertheless, if you live in the southern U.S. -- or anywhere that celebrates National Crawfish Day on April 17 -- you’ll still hear the name Mudbug used often.
8. Whore’s Egg, Now Sea Urchin
And finally, we saved the best -- or maybe the worst -- for last. Long the bane of Maine’s lobstermen and swimmers, Whore’s Eggs, as they are colloquially known, would steal bait out of lobster traps and stab swimmers and waders with their thorny spikes.
Whore’s Eggs are actually Sea Urchins, and are part of the family of marine animals with a hard exoskeleton and radial symmetry -- including starfish, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers, the Oceanic Research Group explains. Recognizing sea urchins by their proper name is necessary to market them as “a sushi delicacy regarded by some as an aphrodisiac,” a New York Times article explains.
Wait. If they have a hard outer skeleton and spines, how do you eat them? The part of sea urchins that is eaten is their gonads, called uni, Sushi University explains. An acquired taste, uni is most often used as a sushi topping and as sashimi.
So, now that you know the backstory on how these eight fish got their popular names, which one will you try next? Perhaps you’ll find your inspiration in one of these seafood-centric articles:
- The Best Seafood Festivals In New England
- 7 Best Seafood Restaurants In Ketchikan
- Best Places To Eat Paella in Barcelona, Spain
- How To Do A Lobster Crawl In Portland, Maine
Editor’s Note: See the source of the fish facts presented in the first paragraph of this article here.