Disclaimer: In this article I’m going to attempt to untangle an accidental conspiracy that is sowing global confusion. Look, nobody’s getting hurt, but it’s everywhere. Although I do wish I was, I am not a qualified scientist. That said, I read, collaborate and investigate until I get to the bottom of whatever rabbit-hole I dive down, and so am confident that the information presented here is correct… enough. Big up to my mates Jazz Kuschke, Danie Otto, André Van Wyk and Leonard Flemming for helping with pics and info! I also received a few beautiful pics from New York angler Mike Wright. Much obliged! So, let’s hope I didn’t bite off more than I can chew as I open this can of tuna, once and for all.
What is a bonito anyway? And why is it even a problem?
Well, in South Africa no less than in other countries, the name “bonito” and its variants seem to be chucked around for any number of members of the tuna family, the smaller ones in particular. So, it may come as a surprise that one of the larger “tunas” is really a bonito, and that some fish you may know as bonito, are in fact tuna. The well-known Atlantic and Oriental bonitos run a gauntlet of common names, although most of these at least are colloquially correct. Either way, it’s a damn bloodbath.
Let’s get some terminology sorted before we attempt to undo this crow’s nest. Skip this part if you’re a scientist. If you’re not much of a reader, skip right down to the list near the end of the article. But nerds like me, enjoy. This is meat and potatoes stuff right here.
The fact is that common names play second fiddle to binomial ones, and that is how it should be. The only truly correct name for any species is its binomial name. More commonly known as “scientific names” or “Latin names”, binomials always consist of at least two parts. The generic name, always beginning with a capital letter, indicates the genus of the species. Although it is the first of the two parts, it’s like a surname, denoting a species’ position in a family, subfamily or tribe. The second part is the specific name, never spelt with a capital letter, indicating the actual species within the generic group. For example, Modern Man, or “hooman”, is properly known as Homo sapiens, and the Outeniqua Yellowwood, or “Kalander”, is Afrocarpus falcatus. There are, or were, several Homo species and several Afrocarpus species, but there’s only one sapiens within Homo, and one falcatus in genus Afrocarpus.
Below species and Genus in the biological classification pyramid you find Tribe, Subfamily, Family, Order, Class, Phylum and Kingdom. You can Google those, but here we’ll focus only on Tribe, Genus and species, in that order, with one caveat: all tunas and bonitos belong to Subfamily Scombrinae, in Family Scombridae – the Mackerel Family. We’ll also disregard subspecies, which is a classification above species, and speaks to one species with differences between populations, but that are able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring (the definition of ‘species’).
Yeah, Mr. White! Science!
Given the above, a binomial name, although not necessarily infallible*, is constant and unique to each species, and the common name is whatever the hell you want. In fact, many different species from very different families go under the exact same common name. If you have no trouble with that, you’re perhaps a better person than I am, but I would argue that it shouldn’t be quite that simple. Good grief I’m digging here. Bear with me.
Because scientists are aware that most people couldn’t be bothered to learn Latin names, and fairly so, you will find that most textbooks make use of “widely accepted common names” for species. It enables us to group, as a random, nonspecific example, fish like the tribe Sardini as “Bonitos”, and those in Thunnini as “Tunas”.
Therefore, if scientists are to be believed (and I for one mostly think that they mostly should), you should not call a fish belonging to the scientifically classified tribe Thunnini a bonito, and you should not, at slightly more of a stretch, classify a Sardinine fish as a tuna. And yet, it happens all the time.
What follows is a list of species I refer to. It is non-exhaustive, and with an emphasis on those found in South African waters. Happily, at least five of the most contentious species are found here, given that two of the world’s most awesome oceans meet at the southern tip of Africa. The list is divided into two parts according to the tribe the fish belongs to. Again, these tribes are closely related, so no one blames you for thinking they’re all one and the same. I also include regional/colloquial names. These names are only as right or wrong as you want them to be. You could argue that I added to the confusion here, and to that I offer, “You say tomato, I say bullshit.”
Tribe Sardini, or True Bonitos:
- Sarda sarda, common name: Atlantic bonito. In waters surrounding the Cape Peninsula, it is most commonly known as Katonkel. Say that five times fast. Found across the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and Black Seas, and around the coast of South Africa to the Eastern Cape. In the Garden Route we simply like to call them ‘Bonnies’.
- Sarda orientalis, common name: Striped or Oriental bonito. Erroneous common name: Sarda Sarda, Snoek. Oriental bonitos are found in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Pacific Oceans and, give or take a few nautical miles, is replaced by the Atlantic bonito in the Eastern Cape. Although the species are extremely similar, the Oriental bonito can be identified by having no more than 19 dorsal spines, whereas Atlantic bonito always have 20 or more.
- Gymnosarda unicolor, common name: Dogtooth Tuna. This unmistakeable and imposing beast is the largest of the bonitos worldwide.
- Tribe Sardini includes more Sarda species not found in South Africa, and two more species outside of the genus Sarda, including Watson’s leaping bonito from Australia, and the Plain Bonito from the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Seas. Also, tribe Sardini has nothing at all to do with sardines. Just wait it gets better.
Tribe Thunnini, or True Tunas:
- Euthynnus alletteratus, common names: Little Tuna/Tunny, False Albacore. In the USA, these fish are commonly known as Albies or Bonita. However, across its distribution, they are also very often called bonito. It is found in mostly warm temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and so appears to be less common in South Africa than its eastern brother, below:
- Euthynnus affinis, common name: Eastern Little Tuna, Kawakawa. In South African waters and elsewhere, more often than not, referred to as bonito. It is in my view the main culprit in all this confusion. Although few reliable external features distinguish it from the False Albacore, their ranges do not overlap. Like the Oriental bonito, the Kawakawa is predominantly found in the subtropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Oceans. Both little tuna species are also commonly and quite well referred to as Mac Tuna because of their mackerel-like markings, and not because you can get them at the drive-thru. Also, many other vernacular names are applied to these fish in the many regions in which they are found. One interesting example is the Malaysian name ‘Tongkol’. Compare that with Katonkel and be as amazed as I am. The Cape-Malay origin of this regional nickname for Atlantic bonito becomes quite obvious. Small world, am I right?
- Katsuwonus pelamis, proper common name: Skipjack Tuna, Striped Tuna. In South Africa and elsewhere, once again, commonly referred to as (oceanic or arctic) bonito. Another far more delightful name is Cakalang. I mean I love that, and I feel like with a name like that why bother with anything else? But then, perhaps its most well-deserved nick is “mushmouth”. I can tell you from painful personal experience that they’ve earned that one, but more on that another time. This cosmopolitan species is among the most prolific true tunas and is the one you use to make tuna mayo sarmies. Incidentally, the name ‘skipjack’ is one other example of a name peppered across several fish families, but I leave it to you to see how that checks out.
- Several other true tunas inhabit South African waters, but none of them are regularly referred to as bonitos, mostly due to their generally larger size and more typical tuna-like markings. A third species in the genus Euthynnus not found in South Africa, is the Pacific Black Skipjack or Barrolette. Feel like giving up yet?
To make things a little easier, true bonitos can be distinguished from tuna by their longer snouts, wider gapes, and much larger teeth. In fact, a wire trace is never needed when targeting tuna on fly but is quite advisable when going after bonito. It appears that the source of the confusion is the colour pattern, with all the striped members of Sardini and Thunnini commonly being called bonito, even though stripes alone are clearly non-diagnostic among the two tribes.
In conclusion, to avoid an argument with science types and nerds, refer to tuna as tuna, and bonito as bonito. But given what I’ve said about binomial names and their singular validity, I reiterate and paraphrase the immortal words of Bullet Tooth Tony: Call ‘em Susan, if it makes you happy.
*Binomial names can and do change from time to time, according to a very strict set of rules, were the original binomial found erroneous, or if the advancement of research indicates that it should. Yawn away, I won’t blame you. It hasn’t happened in a while with South African tunas or bonitos, so far as I can tell. Here’s hoping this piece ages well enough though. If you feel like I ballsed it up, please feel free to let me know. My faith in the Scientific Method compels me. In the meantime, good luck out there.