What's In a Name?

Having just kicked off Sport Fishing's ongoing Name That Fish contest, I find myself waxing philosophic on the often enigmatic topic of what monikers we use to distinguish fish. When it comes to fish names, it's a jungle out there. Just to prove my point, a quick true-or-false quiz for you (and keep your eyes on your own monitor!): 1. A potato cod is a type of cod. 2. A lingcod is a type of cod. 3. A black cod is a type of cod. 4. A coral cod is a type of cod. 5. A cowcod is a type of cod. 6. A kelp cod is a type of cod. 7. A hog snapper is a type of snapper. 8. A salmon grouper is a type of grouper. 9. A black bass (New Guinea) is a type of bass. 10 A snake mackerel is a type of mackerel. The answer, as you might have inferred since obviously I'm trying to make a point, is the same to each statement: as false as a sincere politician. Ah, but do you know what these "cod" (memo to anglers, btw: whenever you aren't sure what a fish is, call it a cod) really are? By the numbers: 1. A potato cod is what Australians call a species of grouper. 2. A lingcod is the accepted common name for the largest member of the greenling family (not a cod), found from California to Alaska. 3. A black cod is widely applied to the sleek sablefish, a large commercially important deepwater fish of the eastern Pacific, in no way related to true codfishes. 4. The coral cod is another species of Australian grouper - long, toothy and aggressive (which reminds me of an old girlfriend, but that's another story). 5. A cowcod is neither cow nor cod but one of the largest of deepwater rockfishes, found off California. 6. Kelp cod are in fact kelp greenling, smaller cousin to the similarly mislabeled lingcod. 7. The hog snapper, a.k.a. properly known as hogfish, is a large wrasse, an entirely different family from snappers. 8. A salmon grouper is a local name applied in some areas of the Pacific Northwest to the bocaccio, a long, good-sized member of the rockfishes (like cowcod). 9. Catch a black bass in New Guinea and you'll be catching snapper - that live in lower rivers and are reputedly among the world's toughest fish to muscle to a boat. 10. Snake mackerel are definitely not mackerel, but belong to a family of deepwater fishes known as Gempylidae, with long, soft bodies and jaws full of sharp teeth.

Most fishes have one generally accepted common name; for many fishes, the American Fisheries Society is the arbiter of names. A lot of better field guides use AFS names; so does the International Game Fish Association. Of course the ultimate common denominator is a species' Latin name; that designation is the same in any language. But Latin names aren't quite as much fun as common names. For example, think of a theme, such as animals. Right there, you can come up with: ratfish (bizarre deepwater fish; I've caught 'em in the North Pacific), catfish, batfish, dogfish, hogfish, frogfish, lizardfish, cowfish, pigfish, rabbitfish, squirrelfish, hawkfish, wolffish, lionfish, parrotfish and on and on. Of course to qualify to win our biweekly contests, you'll need to know the accepted common name (e.g. lingcod is the accepted common name for that species, Ophiodon elongatus; rockcod is not an accepted name for any of the North Pacific species of the genus Sebastes, but rockfish is). If uncertain, you can generally find common names listed on the definitive site, fishbase.org. And if possible, include a fish's scientific name with your entry; even if you list an incorrect common name, it won't matter if you get the Latin name correct. You'll find some pretty cool fish in the SF Name That Fish contest in coming weeks and months to test your knowledge. In fact here's a little hint for the very first fish you'll see in the contest, just for readers of this blog: It was caught in nearly 200 feet of water in the Bahamas; it's found in most warm seas worldwide. And, hey, call that fish whatever you want. After all, as the bard (sort of) said, a fish by any other name still smells the same!