Name that Fish!
When is a salmon not a salmon? Martin Salter looks at some of the peculiarities in the fish naming game.
It's probably fair to say that the early European settlers to Australia weren't the most literate bunch, which perhaps explains why the unfamiliar fish that they discovered in their new world were given decidedly familiar names.
Back in 2009 when I first went fishing down under I thought I knew well what a salmon looked like until I started catching 'sambos' or Australian salmon from North Head in Sydney Harbour. I suppose these silvery blue predators have a passing resemblance to their northern namesake but they are called kahawai in New Zealand, and are actually part of the Arripidae family rather than any type of salmonid.
And so it was that I learned to be a little sceptical of anything bearing names like trout, salmon or cod in my time in Oz. For example, I'd normally describe trout as a brown and cream coloured fish with red spots that like to live in clear streams until I fished the Great Barrier Reef and was told that these oversized goldfish with teeth were in fact coral trout. As far as I could see they were neither coral nor a trout but it seemed rude to argue with my hosts.
I've yet to catch a Murray cod but I struggle to see much of a resemblance between this fish and its Atlantic brethren and even less with the plethora of cod species that I found up in the Northern Territory. It could have all got very confusing but I just went with the flow and used the local names. When in Rome and all that. However, the problems start when you start writing about foreign fishing experiences for a domestic audience. It's at this point you realise that there are a fair number of fish on the planet that go by entirely different names depending on which ocean they find themselves inhabiting.
The Australian Spanish mackerel becomes the kingfish in Africa and the Aussie kingfish is known as the yellow tail in California while the kingfish in Mauritius is apparently the giant trevally, which, by the way, is karembisi in Swahili (Kenya). Falusi is also the Swahili name for the dorado or mahi mahi, which is more commonly called the dolphin fish in the USA. The Aussie kingfish/California yellowtail is also called an amberjack on parts of the east coast of the USA but in the Caribbean it is a snapper!
The ladyfish in America becomes the ninebone in Gambia and the speckled trout in the Everglades isn't a trout at all, although it sort of looks like one but with a secondary, long dorsal fin a bit like an Atlantic ling. None of this stops it being called the weakfish further north along the east coast of the same country.
I think the situation is a little different with bass as the books tell us that they are all Perciformes, or perch-like fishes, belonging to one of three families - Centrachaidae or black basses including the largemouth; Latrolabracidae including the Asian species such as the Japanese and the blackfin sea bass and the Morondae, which includes the European sea bass and the bigger American stripers.
However, neither the Australian freshwater bass nor the big brutal black bass of Papua New Guinea fall into any of these categories, although they are Perciformes, so I guess the word 'bass' was used as a global, generalist term for any predator with spines!
And going back to the dorado - not content with having three names (four if you count 'dollies') the South American freshwater fish of the same title is sometimes spelt 'Dourado'...the same as the gilthead bream in Portugal.
Just to add yet more confusion to the mix even fish that look the same in both hemispheres such as the sea bream can be pronounced differently in Australia where the local fish for 'brim'.
Anyway, I thought I had put all this behind me and was back into the rhythm of catching familiar fish with names I knew and could pronounce. That was until I got chosen to lead a party of friends to the American east coast in search of their famous striped bass and bluefish.
These predators take fly, spinners and surface lures and we were really lucky to secure the services of the two best boat guides on the island - Jaime Boyle and Tom Rapone. The three days we had out in the boats with these guys were magical with plenty of fish coming to surface poppers and streamer flies. We had some great fun with the false albacore tuna or 'albies' as they are known locally. I guess their proper name derives from looking like but not being a true tuna - they are a type of bonito - and because they are clearly a bit albino.
Anyway, everything came full circle when my first American bluefish was hoisted aboard the boat and I recognised those fierce-some, backward facing teeth. What I thought was a new species to tick off my bucket list was in fact the dear old Aussie ‘tailor’ masquerading as something altogether more exotic and not at all blue! (to complicate matters further still it’s called a shad in South Africa! – Ed.)
All of which goes to show that it matters not a jot what we call them for surely it's all about how they fight, look and taste and who we are with and where we are at the moment the rod bucks and the reel screams?
This edited feature forms part of Martin’s Angling Trust ‘Fighting for Fishing’ blog. A version first appeared in Australian ‘Fishing World’ and ‘Classic Angling’ but with the winter weather closing in here in the UK he thought readers might appreciate a little fishy diversion from far off sunny places!
Articles by the same author
- Battling for Bass
- Flooding. Lessons: Learned and Ignored
- Name that Fish!
- Sold Down the River
- Salter signs off with a blast at Cormorants and Otter Predation
- Anglers asked to participate in Marine Conservation Zone planning
- Salter sees off attempts to weaken Marine Bill