In my recent post on dogfish, I briefly touched on the terms “trash fish” and “underutilized species.” Historically as well as today, most consumers are wary of new seafood products and gravitate to the familiar. From halibut to monkfish it is shocking to look with hindsight at all the fish that were caught only to be snubbed at the fish market. Both fishermen and fish dealers know that many of these fish are good to eat and are plentiful, the problem is getting people to buy them.
One method used for many years is to rebrand seafood with a new, catchier name to entice the consumer. Patagonian toothfish, Acadian redfish and slimehead magically become Chilean sea bass, ocean perch and orange roughy when they hit the market. What’s in a name? When it comes to seafood marketing, quite a lot.
Terms like “bass” “perch” or “cod” are familiar to the public and so it is common to use these terms in rebranding fish. Sometimes these rebranded fish have a taste similar to a “cod” or “bass” but are not related species. Other times it is not the taste but the color or texture that is being compared to common species. Pacific Dover sole looks somewhat similar to true Dover sole and sells much better under that name than its other moniker: slime sole.
A fish you may know well can start being sold under a different name, or if traveling, a local name. As a kid on the wharves some of the tuna fishermen would give me grilled or smoked pieces of something called dolphin, by my late teens I started seeing the same fish on menus but now called mahi mahi. I guess the seafood industry realized consumers don’t want to eat a fish with the same name as an intelligent marine mammal.
Unlike the cases of seafood fraud that I’ve posted about, this isn’t about using one fish and claiming it’s another. This is about getting people to try a new fish in the market by making the name more consumer friendly. There is nothing fraudulent about this, so long as the fish seller is not passing it off as something else. And if a simple name change can get the fish-eating public to eat lesser-known fish, it’s good for everyone. It takes the pressure off overfished or rebuilding stocks, it allows the fishermen to make a living by catching abundant species with larger catch quotas and consumers get to try something new, delicious and often at a lower price than the usual fish selections.