Confusing Fish Names – What, Where, and Why
May 10, 2019 | 6 minute read
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Fish names are tough, especially if you’re traveling. Order a Rockfish in Boston, and you’ll get Striped Bass – do the same in San Francisco, and you’ll get Rock Cod. To help you avoid the wrong end of a “guy walks into a restaurant” joke, we’ve made a quick guide to some of the most confusing fish names. Read on!

fish with its mouth open
You called me whaaat?

Jokes aside, why is this important? Let’s say you’re shopping for fish. You pick up some Rockfish fillets, and you cook them exactly as the recipe said. Only, this fish looks nothing like you expected. By now, you’re probably thinking what a lousy cook you are. But what if I told you that the FDA allows selling as many as 60 fish species under the name “Rockfish”?

Same goes for Sea Bass, Grouper, Snapper… you see the problem.

Messing up your dinner isn’t the only reason, though. A lot of recreational anglers mistake the fish they catch for another species. If you’re fishing an area you’re not familiar with, catching over your limit could get you in trouble with the authorities.

On to the fish. Most of the species we’re about to mention share a common name with at least one other fish. On the other hand, certain parts of the world have more than one name for a single species.

Tuna

Tuna are very popular game fish as well as amazing table fare. They are highly migratory, which means that you can find the same species of Tuna in two completely different parts of the world. The best known Tuna species are:

  • Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares)
  • Albacore Tuna (Thunnus alalunga)
  • Bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus)
  • Blackfin Tuna (Thunnus atlanticus)
  • Skipjack Tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis)

And then there’s the Bluefin Tuna group, consisting of four distinct species:

  • Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus)
  • Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis)
  • Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii)
  • Longtail Tuna (Thunnus tonggol)

That’s a lot of Tuna. Wait until you hear what people actually call them.

The Names

Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares) have a number of different names, depending on who you ask. In Mexico, Yellowfins go by the name of Rabil. In Portugal, Brazil, and Sweden, however, they call them Albacora. Sounds a lot like Albacore Tuna, right? Yes, only, that’s a completely different fish.

Speaking of Albacore, did you know that Canadians and South Africans sometimes call them Longfin Tuna? And no, that’s not the same as Longtail Tuna – that’s a type of Bluefin. In Hawaii, Albacores go by the name of Tombo Ahi. The Italians, meanwhile, stuck to their Latin roots and went with Alalunga.

Longtail Tuna vs Southern Bluefin Tuna habitat and common names

Being famous around the globe will earn you a nickname or two. Just ask Bluefin Tuna. In Spain, for example, Atlantic Bluefins are often called Atún Rojo (Red Tuna).

These guys are known for their ocean-wide migrations. They are also premium table fare in high-end restaurants around the world.

Longtail Tuna, who traverse the waters off Australia’s northern coast, are often called Northern Bluefin Tuna. This made it easier to differentiate the fish from its bigger cousin, the Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii). The only trouble is, people started confusing Northern Bluefin Tuna with Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis).

longtail vs southern bluefin tuna habitat and confusing fish names

Barracuda

Barracuda are distributed across the globe. However, what most people don’t know is that there are several species of Barracuda. The three most common ones are:

  1. Pacific Barracuda (Sphyraena argentea)
  2. Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)
  3. Australian Barracuda (Sphyraena novaehollandiae).

The Names

You can find Pacific Barracuda primarily off the coasts of California and Mexico. While they are most abundant in these warm waters, you can find them as far as Point Conception to the north, and Baja California Sur to the south. People often call them Barracuda, or Cuda.

Great Barracuda are more spread out, inhabiting the subtropical waters of the western Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. In the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Great Barracuda are often called Picuda or just Barracuda.

Great Barracuda are an excellent example of how an improper name can cause confusion. In certain parts of the world, Cudas are called Snoek, which is a completely different species – a type of Snake Mackerel.

Finally, Australian Barracuda are native to southern Australia and northern New Zealand. Aussies sometimes call these guys Snook. Keep in mind that it’s not the same Snook you’ll find in the Caribbean or in the US. One other name for Australian Barracuda takes the crown though, and that’s Shortfin Seaspike.

map of barracuda species distribution and their common names around the world

Mackerel

Mackerel are one of the most wide-spread, most popular, and most misrepresented fish families on the planet. The most common Mackerel are:

  • King Mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla)
  • Narrow-Barred Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson)
  • Spanish Mackerel (Scomber maculatus)
  • Atlantic Mackerel (Scomber scombrus)
  • Cero Mackerel (Scomberomorus regalis)
  • Pacific Jack Mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus)

The Names

King Mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) are widespread across the western Atlantic, from Maine all the way to Rio de Janeiro. In most English-speaking countries, they are often referred to as Kingfish. In Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa however, the name Kingfish is a name for Yellowtail Amberjack.

Narrow-Barred Spanish Mackerel are native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean, and are a popular game fish in north-western Australia. Of course, you can’t blame the Aussies for not wanting to pronounce this tongue-twisting name. They just went with Spanish Mackerel. Too bad that name was already taken.

Types of Mackerel and their common names

Luckily, Spanish Mackerel and its narrow-barred cousin live too far away to cause any major confusion. Spanish Mackerel inhabit the waters of the western Atlantic, from Cape Cod in the north to Florida and the Mexican Gulf in the south. A few other names include Spaniard and Sierra.

It’s important to note that if you see a similar fish south of the Gulf, that’s not a Spaniard, it’s a Cero Mackerel. That’s not to say that you can’t find a Cero in the Gulf or even up the Gulf Stream. Ceros are abundant around the Florida Keys, as well as the Caribbean. This is where most of the overlap with Spanish Mackerel occurs.

So how do you tell the two apart? Spanish Mackerel have several rows of bronze spots, with a downward-oriented lateral line. Ceros, on the other hand, have a distinct bronze stripe stretching from their pectoral fins to their tails. Ceros too, have bronze spots, but unlike Spanish Mackerel, theirs are oval.

Salmon

Salmon is arguably the most significant game fish in human history. Praised for its meat, revered for its fighting capabilities, Salmon seems like the perfect fish. Only, there are at least 10 species of this fish, and most people just refer to them by the same name.

To muddy the waters even further, Salmon have been artificially introduced across the Americas – and beyond. These are the most significant species of Salmon:

  • Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar)
  • Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
  • Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
  • Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)
  • Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)
  • Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)
  • Australian Salmon (Arripis trutta)
  • Threadfin Salmon (Polydactylus macrochir)

The Names

Chinook Salmon, native to the US and Canadian west coast, are the largest of all the Salmon species. Although native to western waters, Chinook have been introduced to a number of lakes across North America, including Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes.

Chinook’s size, food value, and fighting spirit earned it the nickname King Salmon. By now, you’re probably thinking “Just what I needed, another Kingfish.” But that’s not even the only Salmon King – There’s also King Threadfin (Threadfin Salmon, native to Australia).

Thankfully, no waters seem to be big enough for two kings, so you won’t be confusing them, at least if you’re fishing.

Coho Salmon is also globally known as Silver Salmon. Similarly, Chum Salmon’s nickname is Dog Salmon, and Pink Salmon goes by Humpback Salmon. And then there’s Sockeye, who is widely referred to as Red Salmon.

Lastly, when people say Salmon in South Africa, they mean Cape Salmon, otherwise known as Geelbek. In Australia and New Zealand, Salmon means Australian Salmon, aka Kahawai.

salmon species distribution and their common names

Scratching the Surface

That covers some of the most confusing fish names you’ll see.

But if you think that these are all the confusing fish names, think again. There are countless more fish sharing the same name, and just as many different names for the same species. Just take a look at Flatfish, and you’ll know what we’re talking about.

a young woman holding two different fish

Still, this guide will hopefully make fish names a little less confusing.

What are some fish names you find confusing? Did you ever catch or buy a fish whose name you already heard somewhere else? Let us know in the comments below.

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