The Commerce Department has bought a $65,000 fish story.

It began in 1974, when Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration theroized that the American public avoids buying perfectly edible and nutritious fish merely because they have unattractive-some might even say offensive-names.

Apparently, the bureaucrats decided, people just are not attracted to fish with names like Gag, Ratfish, Dogfish, Cancer Crab, Rattail or Barred Grunt-none of which sells very well.

But the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that seafood for sale be labeled with its common or usual name, no matter how unappetizing it may sound.

"Many of those common names are just unacceptable to consumers," said Tom Billy, chief of the seafood quality and inspection division of the NOAA. He said there is another problem, too.

Some species have different common names in different parts of the country. Striped bass, for example, are called Rockfish in some areas.

So, in an attemp to help out both the fishing industry, which is losing money, and the consuming public, which the fish industry thinks is missing out on some great eating, the Commerce Department paid $65,000 for a study by a Chicago consulting firm, Brand Group Inc.

The recently completed study calls for a more effective and informative fish identification program, and recommends that seafood be marketed on the basis of eating characteristics (flaky, yet robust?) rather than common names (Atlantic Croaker?).

The study confirmed NOAA's theory that something smelled in the consumer fish market.

"Name give no indication of the organoleptic qualities of the fish," NOAA's Billy said in evaluating the report. "Usually, the name is actually based on anatomical features-the catfish has whiskers, the croaker makes a croaking sound when caught. The names don't tell you what will be on your plate."

Organoleptic qualities are those that affect sensory organs, like taste or smell.

To help change all this, the report suggests the creation of a new rating system.

The eight areas suggested for rating include fat content, odor (both raw and fresh), color after cooking, flakiness, firmness, coarseness and moisture content after cooking. The study suggests rating each area on a scale of 1 to 5.

Under such a system, the report points out the Gag fish has an edibility rating virtually the same as the Red Snapper, a widely acclaimed delicacy.

However, the Brand Group suggests, it would be pratically impossible to market a seafood known as Gag fish, in spite of any favorable taste qualities.

"Simply stated," Billy said, "we want a whole new system of market names based on the eating characteristics of the fish."

There are more than 100,000 different seafood products on the market, the report states.

"Potential markets exist for every product the seafood industry can produce," it states.

NOAA wants public comment on the report by Jan. 31, when it will begin attempts to make it law.

Among other things, NOAA wants to know whether its eight edibility factors are acceptable, whether objective methods can be used to measure edibility factors quantitatively, and whether NOAA should proceed with plans to develop a new identification paln.

The study went so far as to evaluate hundreds of different fish for the various characteristics, which means consumers now know that the Shovelnose Sturgeon has a much stronger odor the the White Crappie or the Black Dogfish. There is nothing to indicate where the study would land on that scale.