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Big fish get a giant name

The group responsible for naming fish changes the common name of Florida's largest grouper from its objectionable ''jewfish.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001

The group responsible for naming fish changes the common name of Florida's largest grouper from its objectionable "jewfish."

The head of the Florida Aquarium was giving his Jewish grandmother a tour when they came to the tank with the great big jewfish. It was an awkward moment.

"Grandma," said aquarium CEO Jeffery S. Swanagan, "this is, um, a large grouper."

The name "jewfish," which some find offensive, is on the way out. In a rare move, the group responsible for naming fish in the Americas is changing the common name of Florida's largest grouper species.

The American Fisheries Society wants people to call jewfish "goliath grouper."

"This was not a quick or easy decision," said Joseph Nelson, chairman of the society's Committee of Names of Fishes. "For several decades, this committee has been petitioned by people who felt the name was offensive to Jews. But our overriding principle has always been one of stability of names, and we've resisted, politely saying, 'No.' "

But the committee recently received a petition asking that the name be changed. After a lengthy discussion, members decided to change it.

The society in Bethesda, Md., resists altering fish names unless they "violate the tenets of good taste," according to the society's rules.

This is only the second time it has happened. The first was in the late 1990s when the squawfish of the American Northwest became the pikeminnow.

"People think we're going to start changing all kinds of names, like Spanish mackerel," Nelson said. "But that's ridiculous. This is not a domino effect."

News of the change is getting a muted reaction.

"I never thought twice about it as a major issue in my life," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "It's not something I would have gone out of my way to get changed, but it certainly is a sensitivity that is appreciated."

Gary Folden, a Clearwater charter boat captain, recently took a group of Jewish doctors out fishing. Large grouper were chasing mackerel around his boat. When he was asked what they were, he matter-of-factly replied, "jewfish."

"I've never had anybody that's found it offensive," Folden said. "People ask me, 'How did they get that name?' I tell them I don't know."

No one knows for sure how the jewfish got its name, although several theories exist, said Nelson, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta.

One theory is that when people started eating the fish, they found its flesh very clean, like kosher food.

A less pleasant theory is that in the 1800s, jewfish were considered trash fish, and some people declared it was only fit for Jews.

Yet another theory is that it was called "jawfish" for its huge mouth, and that later became "jewfish" through Southern accents and colloquialisms. And those aren't even all the theories.

The Florida Aquarium has a 190-pound jewfish in one of its display tanks. The aquarium gets complaints about the fish's name and will be happy to start calling it a goliath grouper, said Swanagan, the CEO.

"It's been a concern so much that sometimes when I'm giving tours, I just call it a big grouper to avoid the issue," Swanagan said.

He thinks goliath grouper is a fine name.

"Let's enjoy the animal for all its glory, and not let nomenclature forced on it by humans overshadow the magnificence of the animal."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Jewfish or goliath grouper

Epinephelus itajara

SIZE: grows up to 8 feet long and may weigh as much as 700 pounds

LIFESPAN: 30-50 years

DIET: Feeds on crustaceans, fish

HABITAT: Found in western Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans

FLORIDA RECORD: 680 pounds, caught off Fernandina Beach in 1961

"JEWFISH" ORIGIN: Oxford English Dictionary lists the first usage of "jewfish" in this 1697 quote: "The Jew-Fish is a very good fish and, I judge, so called by the English because it hath scales and fins, therefore a clean fish, according to Levitical law."Webster's New World College Dictionary says the phrase may have been borrowed from the Italian giupesce, which means "bottom fish."

SOURCES: World Book Online, Florida Aquarium

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