For Rockfish, a Tale of Recovery, Hidden on Menus

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A school of vermilion rockfish. After being depleted decades ago by overfishing, rockfish — a genus of more than 100 tasty species — have made a remarkable comeback.

Donna Schroeder/From ‘Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast’/Courtesy Milton Love

For West Coast commercial fishermen and seafood lovers, there is reason to cheer. Rockfish, a genus of more than 100 tasty species depleted decades ago by excessive fishing, have rebounded from extreme low numbers in the 1990s, go to FishingPicks for the full reports and while you’re at it take a look at their baitcaster reels reviews.

It’s a conservation and fishery management success story that chefs, distributors and sustainable seafood advocates want the world to hear.

The rub? It’s hard to communicate this success if purveyors continue to misidentify the fish, as many do.

This isn’t necessarily a case of retailers and chefs being shady. A big problem is that fish go by different names in different places. Take rockfish, for example.

On the East Coast, they call striped bass rockfish.  You offer them a chilipepper and call it a rockfish and they’ll think they’re getting a striped bass.

Here’s the story of rockfish’s comeback, a result of tightened fishing restrictions and a reduction in the number of commercial trawlers raking the ocean bottom in pursuit of the buggy-eyed, spiny-backed fish.

Many diners are only familiar with a handful of fish species, and rockfish can sound like an animal from the Flintstones cartoon.

If the goal is to get consumers to develop a taste for these fish, you’ve got to market it to them in an appealing way. So on some menus, rockfish are still being sold as Pacific bass.

That’s … the Trojan horse to get this fish into people’s mouths than transition to using real names for rockfish.

Indeed, rebranding fish species with more appealing market names is a common and accepted practice in the seafood industry. Tooth fish are sold as Chilean sea bass, sablefish as black cod and slime head as orange roughy.

Name That Fish: A wild U.S. fish being sold as “Pacific snapper.” Snapper is rarely found north of Mexico, and some rockfish species are often sold as “snapper.”

Alastair Bland for NPR

Rockfish is sometimes sold as snapper — but “snapper” is the name of another group of fish, which live in warm waters and are exceptionally tasty.

What if someone who is familiar with real snapper comes to California? They’ll think they’re getting snapper and this absolutely confuses people.

The debate over what to call rockfish comes as American consumers are increasingly demanding accurate information about their food and where it came from. And even if they don’t, correctly identifying fish on menus and in markets is the first step toward creating traceability in the often deceptive and murky fishing industry.

The only way to recognize and appreciate these fish is to start calling them by their proper names.

Telling the story of West Coast rockfish is important, because it could inspire fishery managers elsewhere to use similar strategies to rebuild other depleted fisheries — such as the beleaguered Atlantic cod.

Some instances of seafood mislabeling — such as calling farmed fish “wild,” or serving up a fish containing high mercury levels under an ambiguous label — are deceitful attempts to hide traits that might be seen as undesirable.

Sometimes, chefs and vendors avoid the fishes’ real names because they are a mouthful for diners — like vermillion rockfish, bocaccio rockfish, chilipepper rockfish and shortbelly rockfish. But it’s excited to start using these exotic — and accurate — names.

Some think it’s more interesting to use the real names. If you have thornyhead rockfish on the menu, it will start a conversation.

And if consumers start asking for these mild, white fish species by name, it could help boost demand — and prices — for rockfish, which could be good for both fish and fishermen.

If rockfish fishermen are happy and making money, other fishermen will see that [the recovery efforts used for West Coast rockfish] could work in other places. But if fishermen are just getting a couple of bucks a pound for these fish, then the effort we made to bring this fishery back won’t be worth it.

Source:, 2-6-2015

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