“I can see that it’s meat, but what species?” is a question that travelers may find themselves asking until they learn that it’s better not to. Oddly, few ever ask a similar question about fish. Restaurants commonly advertise fish tacos, fish chowder, or pasta with fish sauce without feeling any need to state the species. This is especially surprising given that fish represent roughly half of all living vertebrates meaning that, at least in terms of species precision, it would be less problematic to sell food labeled only as ‘mammal’ or ‘bird’.
This may soon change in California. State senator Alex Padilla has recently introduced SB1138, a bill that would require all seafood sold in California to be labeled with the fish’s common name and would make selling mislabeled seafood a crime. While I support this bill and think it’s a good first step, I personally think that fish should be labeled with its scientific name as well.
Organisms are usually referred to by their genus and species in the scientific literature. Genus is listed before species and capitalized, while species is written in all lowercase. While there can be multiple species with a genus such as lions, leopards, tigers, and jaguars all being members of the genus Panthera (P. leo, P. pardus, P. tigris, and P. onca respectively), every described species should have exactly one unique genus species combination.
Common names cannot achieve this level of precision. Many fish species are marketed under more than one common name, often because their original names were deemed unappealing to consumers. Classic examples of this include labeling Dissostichus eleginoides as Chilean seabass rather than Patagonian toothfish, Squatinia squatina as monkfish rather than angelshark, and Coryphaena hippurus as mahi-mahi or dorado rather than dolphinfish.
Furthermore, it is not unusual for very different fish species to share common names. Squatina squatina (angelshark) and anglerfish in the genus Lophius are all marketed as monkfish, four species of fish have the common name of black cod (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_cod), and any species of fish in the family Lutjanidae (110 species total http://www.fishbase.org/summary/FamilySummary.php?ID=323) can be sold as snapper. As you can imagine this leaves room for a lot of variability in terms of well or poorly managed fisheries as well as levels of mercury contamination. This makes it hard for consumers to make good decisions regarding sustainability or their health. Labeling fish with its scientific as well as common name will help clarify this issue.
It is true that few non-scientists are familiar with the scientific names of commonly consumed fishes, but non-scientists could still use this information. Smartphones have become ubiquitous in California and now most of us are never more than a few seconds away from finding out whether we are better off purchasing Pagrus auratus (New Zealand tai) or Aphareus rutilans (rusty jobfish). According to Seafood Watch the latter is much more sustainable.