A Fish by Any Other Name… Changing Fish Names to Make Them More Marketable

(reprint from “Seafood Lover’s Florida” Globe Pequot Press 2017, by Bruce Hunt)

If Slimehead was the “Special Fresh Catch of the Day”, would you order it? Yeah, me neither. But if it’s Orange Roughy, you bet! Orange roughy, a type of deep ocean perch, is delicious, with light, flaky, and flavorful meat, and a fish whose original name was “slimehead”. St. Peters fish may not sound unappetizing, just uninteresting. But call it “tilapia” and suddenly it’s on every restaurant’s menu. The Patagonia toothfish is a large (sometimes up to 200 pounds) cold-water cod that fishermen would routinely throw back. But rename it “Chilean sea bass” (and it’s not even a bass) and it becomes a prized special of the day. Goosefish, a bottom dweller with a giant menacing-looking flat head, is now “monkfish”, the tail meat of which is quite tasty. As for “mahi mahi”, well, it’s obvious why that name has supplanted “dolphin”. Nobody wants to think they’re eating Flipper.
This all started back in the early 1970’s when the National Marine Fisheries Service (now part of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, within the Department of Commerce) decided that fish with unappetizing names might be getting a bad rap. They ran surveys, hired a Chicago marketing consulting firm called Brand Group Incorporated, and at one point even hired the United States Army Food Research Laboratories in Natick, Massachusetts, all in an attempt to figure out how to re-brand unfortunately-named fish. The program continued well into the 1980’s, and ultimately quite a few fish names were changed. The bad part is that in some cases the name changes worked so well that some renamed fish, like the orange roughy and the Chilean sea bass, became over-fished to the point of endangerment.

Bruce Hunt

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