NOT FAMILIAR with pillies, snotties, duskies or goodoo? Sportshounds fishing writer STEVE COOPER takes us on a tour through the strange, murky waters of fish names:
A non-angler listening to anglers talking to one another could be forgiven for not understanding what was being said. Make no mistake: “Angler speak” is a different language from English, one that comprises vernacular names for just about everything that swims, including anglers.
Australians have a habit of changing names, sometimes with a twist – like calling every redhead you know Bluey. Words like pillies (pilchards), grubs (bardi or wood grubs), snotties (trevalla), goodoo (Murray cod) or jewie (mulloway) are just some vernacular names for fish unlikely to be understood outside of the fishing fraternity.
In 2001, to put some conformity into fish nomenclature, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation established an “Australian Fish Names Committee”. In 2007 the FRDC adopted the Australian Fish Names Standard AS SSA 5300, which included over 4,000 Australian and imported species.
The Fish Names Committee’s aim was to end more than 200 years of confusion by standardising Australian fish names. To that end a dedicated group of seafood experts spent six years producing a standard name for 4,500 varieties of seafood, both local and imported.
The committee consisted of seafood catchers and sellers, scientists, and fisheries managers, and they talked to industry people and consumers from one end of the country to the other.
Australia has over 5,000 native species of finfish, and many more crustaceans (crabs) and molluscs (squid and shellfish). Several hundred of these species are commercially important; many others support recreational activities such as fishing and diving. Australia also imports seafood products consisting of many other fish species from around the world to help satisfy the increasing demand for seafood.
Confusion over fish names has been caused by the numerous species Australia has on offer, a species being known by more than one name, or the same name being used for more than one species. As early as the 1920s, meetings were held in Sydney to discuss fish names as the local and regional variations were becoming apparent.
A searchable database of all species listed in the Australian Fish Names Standard is available at www.fishnames.com.au. When you look up snapper the database comes up with 45 variations on the name snapper, all of them different fish, and many of these names have other names as well.
Fish names are difficult for anglers and non-anglers alike. Take squid for example: Port Phillip Bay squid are commonly called southern calamari; the variety caught offshore in Bass Strait is Gould’s squid, even though most anglers call them either arrow or aero squid.
Along the Murray River, a fish that starts out as a yellowbelly, swims down river and undergoes several names changes to golden perch, Murray perch and callop, depending on where the fish happens to be at the time.
Australia’s top-selling seafood is basa, which is a freshwater catfish imported from Vietnam. It has variously been sold as Pacific dory, shark catfish and freshwater fillet.
One of Victoria’s more confusing species is the trevalla. This species regularly enters our bays in good numbers. The correct name for trevalla is warehou. However, this fish has a long list of vernacular baggage including: snotties, snotgall or snotnose trevalla, silver or sea bream, the Lord’s fish, slimeys and haddock. The appropriate vernacular depends on where you happen to be. Haddock is the popular nomenclature at Portland and Apollo Bay. In Corio Bay, the fish are called snotties while along the eastern seaboard of Port Phillip Bay, trevalla is preferred.
Fish names have also been changed to politically correct terms. The luderick in New South Wales was called “nigger,” but this was deemed inappropriate and nowadays blackfish or luderick are the preferred names.
Some newspapers Herald-Sun and The Weekly Times for example, would not allow jewies or jewfish to be used for mulloway. The vernaculars were deemed to be anti-Semitic, even though the jew reference was to the otolith bones (ear bones) used by some people to make jewellery.
There are many species of flathead, and the most common generic term for them is frog. There are variations with the species group. Dusky flathead are duskies, southern blue spotted or yank flathead are yanks, while the small sand flathead caught in Port Phillip Bay are commonly called channel rats. A favourite sportfish, yellowtail kingfish, is also known as kingies, yellowtail, hoodlums or bandits.
Sharks, too, can cause confusion. One of the classic seafood names is flake. Most consumers believe flake is another name for gummy shark. This is not so. All shark meat tends to be categorised as flake, and while gummy shark was more expensive than most other sharks, the shops were able to sell cheaper cuts as flake.
Mother Nature offers up many strange marine creatures that seem to be neither here nor there in the overall scheme of things. One of the oddest creatures that anglers are likely to come across is the elephant fish. Only it isn’t a fish at all. Like the names of many marine creatures, elephant fish is a misnomer. These creatures would have been better named elephant sharks because that is what they are: sharks.
A member of the family of ghost sharks, elephant fish are odd looking creatures and feature a proboscis that protrudes like an elephant’s trunk from the head. Even the way elephant fish swim is strange. Sharks swim by moving their tails from side to side; rays achieve the same by rippling their wings. Elephant fish look like sharks but swim using their pectoral fins. And when hooked they like to roll over and wrap themselves in the line.
Despite the strangeness surrounding this creature’s appearance, elephants have two other visual traits that will surprise anglers who catch one for the first time. The first thing you notice, after the proboscis of course, is the Teddy Bear eyes. And then there is the smooth satin skin that can come out of the water shinier than a highly polished chrome bumper bar.
Author: Steve Cooper
STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.