They hope that the humans will soon eat copi sliders and cook copi tacos, eating the invader’s population.
“’Copi’ rose to the top. It’s a little chilly, maybe a little Mediterranean,” said Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, of the two-year search for names. “Copi sounded like a fish.”
That’s copi as in copious, which is the problem with these fish from an environmental point of view.
Introduced from Asia in the 1960s to control weeds and algae, four voracious species — silver carp, bighead carp, grass and black carp — escaped southern ponds and exploded in numbers along the Mississippi River and its far-reaching tributaries.
Mighty American rivers that once teemed with a diversity of species now teem with millions of invasive carp, the largest of which, at 110 pounds, can weigh more than a person. Videos of the large, silvery fish shooting out of the water along the Illinois, Missouri and Ohio rivers have been going viral for years.
Collectively known as Asian carp, they now reside on the doorstep of the Great Lakes, in large numbers less than 80 miles from Lake Michigan.
Biologists fear that if the fish get there, they will suck up the plankton that forms the basis of the food web, wreaking havoc on an already invaded, disrupted Great Lakes ecosystem that nevertheless supports a $7 billion sport fishing industry.
Illinois officials are betting that consumer demand will sift that carp supply. They praise the fish’s mild taste, abundance of omega-3 fatty acids and lower mercury content than most other fish, and emphasize that unlike common carp, these species are not bottom eaters.
“This isn’t your grandfather’s carp,” Irons said. “It’s not the one who’s rooting in the mud. Because they eat high in the water column, there are fewer contaminants.”
Biologists estimate that the Illinois River contains 20 million to 50 million pounds of the prolific invaders just waiting to be exploited and, they hope, overfished.
Building up the demand for the fish would spark a revival of a fishing industry in the Illinois River, which was once one of the most productive in the country, it is believed. This would create jobs for communities that need them, and tap into a protein source that could alleviate food insecurity while reducing the greatest ecological threat to the Great Lakes, Irons said.
“It checks all the boxes,” he said.
Chicago chef Brian Jupiter, a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist and winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” competition, unveiled the new name on Wednesday.
In an interview days before the event, Jupiter said he planned to offer the fish at his New Orleans-influenced Ina Mae Tavern, perhaps in a po’boy sandwich made with copi fish cake.
“It is a flaky fish with white flesh; the taste is good and mild,” he said. “It has a lot of bones, so that makes it challenging.”
Most previous attempts to market the fish have run into trouble when they hit those bones. The carp’s skeleton is composed of an intricate lacework of intermuscular bones that branch in a Y shape deep within the flesh of the fish, creating a tricky puzzle for a filleting knife.
Those who cut boneless pieces say that a 40-pound carp produces less than four pounds of fish strips several inches long and only about a quarter-inch thick.
That’s why the new marketing campaign focuses on chopped fish, produced by a machine the size of a washing machine that squeezes the white meat from the bone. While the result may resemble ground turkey, it is technically not ground.
It can be challenging to convince consumers to embrace chopped fish.
“There are certain communities that are more prone to chopped fish, but I think this will socialize it,” Irons said. “Maybe this is the benefit of using this as the first fish: Not only do you introduce copi as a great protein for dinner, but you could also say, ‘I never thought of using chopped fish.’ †
Jupiter said he was perplexed at first when he received samples.
“I was like, ‘What’s that?’ ” he said. “That was the last thing I wanted to work with in terms of the cuts they sent. But I found it very easy to use in the cake format. As kids we ate fish fingers. It gives you a lot of versatility.”
He is one of about two dozen restaurants, shops and wholesalers lining up to start selling copi on Wednesday. Recipes will be available on ChooseCopi.com.
A 2018 state report on the commercial potential of the top-feeding invasive carp notes that consumers view them as “waste fish” and associate them with the common carp introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s.
Many in the attempt to rename joke that carp is a four letter word. They also cite a precedent: orange roughy? It was once known as slimehead. Chilean sea bass? Formerly Patagonian toothfish.
Even Asian carp have undergone previous brand makeovers. They are popularly referred to as river rabbits and Illinois bass. An attempt in 2010 was to call them Kentucky tuna. A new carp processing plant on the Illinois River calls its product shiruba (silver in Japanese). And Louisiana chief Philippe Parola has registered Silverfin as a trademark and has spent over a decade building a business that sells it.
Parola, who started cooking invasive rodents in the 1990s by developing recipes for nutria, said he welcomes the push for copi because he believes it can reduce environmental damage and also win consumers over to its Silverfin. But he warned it won’t be easy. “Many have tried,” he warned.
To make sure “copi” sticks, Illinois will trademark the name and attempt to get it approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. For now, fish labeled copi should be identified as carp, Irons said.
Some previous moves to change the name have focused on racial sensitivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped using the name last year to “move away from any terms that portray Asian culture and people in a negative light,” an official explained.
“There seems to be a stigma attached to this fish on several levels,” said Jayette Bolinski, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “The main reason we are changing the name is because research shows that consumers associate Asian carp with a fish that is unappealing and unappetising. Of course, removing the racial reference in the name is another reason we’re doing this.”
If a name change stimulates the appetite for the fish, an industry of workers and infrastructure will be needed to satisfy it. A burgeoning commercial carp fishery has grown around the Peoria Pool, a 113-mile stretch of the Illinois River where the fish breed abundantly.
In 2020, Sorce Feshwater Co. opened. a poolside processing plant and handled about 5 million pounds of invasive carp last year, said Roy Sorce, the company’s president.
Sorce charges $5.95 per pound for chopped fish and up to $10 per pound for the strips, because they are cut by hand.
A few dozen fishermen have united to form the Midwest Fish Co-Op.
All agree that the industry has not reached critical mass and will need more people to catch the fish. Clint Carter, a fisherman whose parents also worked in Illinois, said it would take at least $170.00 to purchase the boat, truck and equipment needed to enter the business.
“There are a lot of people who think of this as a free source of protein, but there are a lot of economics that need to be taken care of for this thing to work,” he said.
Carter has been offering “Asian carp” at his Springfield, Illinois fish shop — three-quarter pound fried strips, pickles, and onions on bread for $7.99. He sold four orders on a recent Saturday.
“I’ve probably given samples to 10,000 people over the years, and I’ve heard maybe two people say they don’t like it,” Carter said. “It’s mostly that mental stigma that it’s carp.”
Sorce opened the processing plant because he became convinced that the fish could help alleviate rising food insecurity around the world. However, that market has not yet adopted it. A major hunger relief organization loves its product but can’t stand it because the rules prohibit the use of ground beef, he said, something he says needs to change.
For now, he has reluctantly put his hopes in the pet food market, which is already using some of the fish.
“I love my dog, but this fish can literally solve a lot of problems for people in need, for hungry people,” Sorce said.
Meanwhile, the population is growing, increasing the threat to the Great Lakes.
The lakes are connected to the Mississippi River basin through canals completed in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which carried the city’s sewage away from its drinking water source in Lake Michigan.
To keep the fish from swimming through the channel, in 2002 engineers deployed the first of several electrical underwater barriers about 60 kilometers from the lake.
A more ambitious barrier project is underway at Brandon Road Lock and Dam, near Joliet, Illinois, identified by the US Army Corps of Engineers as the “critical bottleneck” between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.
The $858 million project, now in the design phase, will feature yet another electrical barrier, but will add terrifying underwater acoustics to fish and an intimidating curtain of bubbles.
Planners say their barriers have a greater chance of success if fish populations are first reduced by a thriving fishery.
“With commercial fishing, we want to attack the population that comes up the Illinois River and fish out those invasive species and keep the population down or as far downstream as possible,” said Andrew Leichty, the Brandon Road project lead.
Marc Gaden, a legislative liaison for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, called the risk posed by the fish “serious.” Renaming the carp to promote a fishing industry is a helpful step, he said.
“Make lemonade if you have lemons,” Gaden said, “and maybe fish them out and at least keep a lid on them.”