Why Is Mahi Mahi Called a Dolphin?

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It's somewhat of a mystery. A fish – the dolphin fish – carries the name used for identifying a prominent water mammal – the dolphin. Add to this the fact that the dolphin fish also goes by a number of other names, mostly commonly mahi mahi and dorado, and naturally you'll have questions about how these names are connected and why.

Disambiguation: Dolphin and Dolphin Fish

Dolphins and dolphin fish don't look like each other and are not even in the same taxonomic group. But they share the same name and cause plenty of confusion. The dolphin fish is a golden-colored creature with sporadic hues of blues, greens, white and yellow. It's much smaller than the typical dolphin mammal, and has a blunt, flat forehead in contrast with the dolphin's beaked face. They also vary in size. Most dolphin fish grow to only about three feet long (though some have been as long as six feet) and dolphins are six or more feet in length. While dolphins are protected from capture under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, dolphin fish are heavily fished and most often marketed under the name mahi mahi. To save a syllable and add to the confusion, many refer to the dolphin fish simply as a "dolphin."

Meaning of Mahi Fish

The name "mahi mahi" comes from the Polynesian language and literally means "strong strong." Two species of dolphin fish may be marketed as mahi mahi: common dolphin fish and pompano dolphin. Retailers and restaurants might also sell mahi mahi under the name "dorado fish." Dorado means "golden" in Spanish and underscores the fish's characteristic golden color. While restaurants may have formerly used the terms "dolphin" or "dolphin fish" on their menus, many have switched to "mahi mahi" to avoid confusion and outrage among guests.

Theories for These Names

Apparently few answers exist about how and why the term "dolphin" became attached to the mahi mahi fish. In fact, the etymology of the word "dolphin" reveals that the term originally meant "womb." So the word fits the dolphin, the marine mammal, since female dolphins give birth to live young; they have wombs. Dolphin fish, though, are fish; they don't have wombs and they don't look like dolphins. The writing staff at BlueWater magazine had similar questions about the dolphin fish's strange name and formed one theory. Underwater, the dolphin and dolphin fish make similar high-pitched noises to communicate. So the dolphin fish may get its name because of this dolphin-like trait.

Societal Impact

Since the dolphin fish swims in a category starkly different than the dolphin and because of the fish's high reproductive rates, you don't have to fear selecting the dolphin fish from a restaurant menu or from the store. According to organization Seafood for the Future, the New England Aquarium lists dolphin fish as an "ocean friendly seafood choice." It is found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. It can be found both offshore and near coastlines at depths of 0 to 279 feet and is particularly abundant in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean.

It's also a fish that's fairly easy to catch and is favored among fishers who take advantage of the fish's attraction to floating objects by setting up bunches of bamboo reeds before setting their nets. In the U.S., this mahi dolphin can be caught from Massachusetts to Texas. About a third of the nation's harvest comes from the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico; the rest comes from the Pacific, with most of those caught in Hawaii. Perhaps even better, the International Game Fish Association cites the dolphin fish, which is simplify another name for mahi mahi, as delicious food.

References

About the Author

Aaron Charles began writing about "pragmatic art" in 2006 for an online arts journal based in Minneapolis, Minn. After working for telecom giant Comcast and traveling to Oregon, he's written business and technology articles for both online and print publications, including Salon.com and "The Portland Upside."

Photo Credits

  • Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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