A Fish Called "Woof"

By Whisky, the Black & White Cat

Whitby’s famous fish and chip shop, the Magpie, displays a list of fish currently available. Recently Ian enquired about a fish called “Woof” and was told that it was a sort of catfish. He remarked facetiously that it ought to be called “Meow”. The tired look in the waitress’s eyes alerted him to the possibility that his witticism was not as vibrant and original as he’d supposed.

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The reason he’d asked about it was because he suspected it was the same as one sold in Hastings, where he comes from, under the names “rock salmon” and “huss”. This he understood to be a sort of dogfish (not catfish) – which belongs to the shark family.

He has vivid memories of “rock salmon” from his boyhood. It was forever on the boil in the household, but it never got fed to him. Only to the cat, who would eat nothing else. It was the cheapest fish in the shop and stank the house out. For that reason he was never disposed to think of it as human food, and on the few occasions he had been served it in institutions like hospitals, he didn’t like the taste.

He also recalls at some time in the last 50 years seeing a map of the British Isles with a host of different names for the same fish shown dotted around the coastline: robin huss, husk, coley, saithe, pollack, etc. etc.

Intrigued as I was by a catfish called “Woof” which might also be a dogfish occasionally sold under the name of “salmon” – which it quite clearly wasn’t, I thought I’d do a bit of online research whilst Ian was taking a nap, Which he does frequently at odd times during the day in a most catlike way, which endears him to me.

What I discovered ran clean counter to Ian’s beliefs and opinions on the matter. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last. Which all goes to show, as Mark Twain said, that is not what you don’t know that’s the trouble, but what you know that isn’t so.

Firstly, the name-map of the British Isles which Ian half remembers is duff gen of the first-order, because the names: robin huss, husk, coley, saithe, pollack and woof referred to at least three unrelated species of fish, and maybe more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it’s not the fact that the same fish gets called by different names, but that lots of different fish get called by the same name.

Take sea bass for instance. Wikipedia lists 26 different species which can go by that name. The implications are profound. Fishermen are not, by and large, marine biologists, and nor are fishmongers or their customers. But customers hear of fashionable names and are apt to ask about them, and if they see a fish so labelled they will buy it out of curiosity. This is apt to create fads and fashions, leading to an unsustainable demand for a given fish species, not to mention the substitution of one species for another, which conceals the true dire state of fish stocks.

For example, the dogfish Ian remembers his mother buying dirt-cheap at the local fish shop was at the time one of the commonest species of shark in the world. It is now on the endangered list of many countries.

On a visit to Monterey, California, Ian recalls seeing Cannery Row: a street of derelict fish canneries. The sardine fishery collapsed withing the space of a year or two at the end of WWII, with no warning in terms of reduced catches in the preceding years – quite the opposite.

There’s a lesson here for us all. And it would be good to learn it before certain popular fish go off the menu till Judgement Day.

updated: 02:55 05/12/2015