Pacific Ocean Perch – How it got its name
By: Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Sept. 10, 2012
Fish names are interesting: there are two, the scientific name and the common name. Scientific names are based on a biological classification system and generally have two words, starting with a generic name and ending with the specific species. The generic name applies to animals with similar characteristics, and is further broken down into species, or those that can interbreed. Sebastes alutus, the Pacific Ocean perch which live in the northeastern Pacific with at least 55 other species, were classified in a different genus, Sebastodes before 1971.
Common names of fish are used locally. Perch brings to mind a freshwater fish, such as the yellow perch, a food fish from the Great Lakes. In the Gulf of Mexico snapper is a food fish taken both by commercial fishermen and sportsmen, while in the northeastern Pacific Ocean the snapper is commonly an incidental catch in the Pacific halibut longline fisheries. They are completely different species. I understand that a food processor exported a number of Pacific snapper fillets to the Gulf of Mexico market where they were sold as snapper and apparently, after they were purchased, it wasn’t long before they were returned with the complaint “These are not snappers!” However, when two different species’ textures are similar after being frozen and shipped across the United States, the common name becomes extremely important in an existing market, for example, ocean perch.
I visited Jergen Westrheim in June, 2010 at his home in Nanaimo, Canada while doing research on my experiences as a marine biologist during the 1960’s and ‘70s. I was interested in rockfish and went to sea with Jergen on one of their groundfish cruises in the ‘60s. During our visit he told me a story about how ocean perch were named.
In the ‘50s, when he started to work for Oregon State, the ground fish fisheries was new and the job was to determine what made up the resource. Commercial fishermen were trying new ideas to expand their market, like deepwater trawling along the continental break of 100 fathoms. They caught a species of rockfish called the long-jaw rockfish (Sebastodes alutus) or, as the fishermen called them, “rosies”, but because there was no market for it, they brought a load into Newport and gave it to the fish house to see what could be developed. Sig got involved with this species and selected it for his Master’s thesis.
He learned that marketing for this species started in the Great Lakes’ yellow perch fishery. They produced a fillet with the skin on which sold well in the Midwest, especially during the war years, but the fishery began to fall off even while there was still a great demand for them. On the Atlantic coast there was a species of rockfish, the rose fish (Sebastes marinus), and it was filleted like the yellow perch with the skin on and was sold in the yellow perch market as perch. The customers would say “The product is excellent but why is the skin red?” and the answer was that it “was from the ocean,” resulted in the name of “ocean perch”. It had better flavor and texture than yellow perch, so was successful and became popular.
The long-jaw rockfish, Sebastodes alutus,began selling in the same market and under
the same name, ocean perch, but east coast venders became upset and brought a case to court saying; “You can’t use that name since they are two different species and, in fact, are two different genera”, Sebastes marinus vs. Sebastodes alutus. A professor at the U of W College of Fisheries, Dr. Welander, along with a student, Lee Alverson, went to court to testify. Lee had worked with Jergen in Oregon and then began working with Dr. Welander, putting together a key for identification of Sebastodes alutus. But there was so much confusion regarding the scientific names, especially into which genera the species should be classed into, that the judge finally ruled that the long-jaw rockfish name could be changed to Pacific Ocean perch and the east coast species could retain the name ocean perch. Therefore when you look at the landings in the “Fisheries of the United States” you will find the pounds of rockfish landed and this value subdivided into the Atlantic Ocean perch (red fish), Pacific Ocean perch and other. This means that all the other species of pacific coast rockfish are included in the other category.
It was years later in 1971 that scientists reached a universal accepted conclusion, that the Pacific coast rockfish of the genera Sebastodes would be changed to Sebastes, bringing the two species of ocean perch under the same genera. (Love et al, 2002, “The Rockfishes of the Northeastern Pacific”)