From ‘carp’ to ‘copi’: an unpopular fish gets a makeover in the US

You are in the mood for fish and your server proposes a dish of invasive carp. “Ugh,” you might say. But how about roasted copi fresh from the Mississippi River?

Here’s the catch: they’re the same.

Illinois and partner organizations in the US began a market-tested campaign Wednesday to rebrand four species formerly known as Asian carp as “copi,” in hopes the new label will make them more attractive to US consumers.

Turning carp into a popular menu item for households and restaurants is one way officials hope to curb a decades-old invasion that threatens native fish, clams and aquatic plants in the Mississippi and other Midwestern rivers, as well as the Great Lakes.

“The name ‘carp’ is so harsh that people don’t even try it,” said Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s healthy, clean and it tastes really damn good.”

The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is funding the $600,000 five-year project to rename the carp and make them widely available. More than two dozen distributors, processors, restaurants and retailers have signed up. Most are in Illinois, but some deliver to multiple states or nationwide.

“This could be a great breakthrough,” said John Goss, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to stop the carp invasion and worked on the renaming project. “The coming years are very important for building trust and acceptance.”

It has a nice, mild taste… a pleasant surprise that should enhance its reputation,Brian Jupiter, chef in Chicago

Span, a Chicago communications agency, came up with ‘copi’. It’s a shortened play on words for “abundant” – a reference to the burgeoning populations of fathead, silver, grass, and black carp in the US outback.

Imported from Asia in the 1960s and 1970s to gobble up algae from sewer lagoons and fish farms in the Deep South, they escaped to the Mississippi. They have contaminated most of the river and many tributaries, displacing native species such as sea bass and crappie.

Regulators have spent more than $600 million to keep them away from the Great Lakes and waters like Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include placing electrical barriers at bottlenecks and hiring crews to harvest the fish for products such as fertilizer and pet food. Other technologies – underwater noisemakers, air bubble curtains – are in the works.

It would help if more people would eat the critters, which are popular in other countries. Officials estimate that up to 22.7 million kilograms can be harvested annually in the Illinois River between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan. There are even more available from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.

“Government subsidies alone will not end this war,” Goss said. “The market-driven demand for copi in the private sector could be our best hope.”

Copi po’boy? Fish has a ‘mild’ taste

In the US and Canada, carp are best known for being muddy-tasting bottom fishermen. Bighead and silver carp, the main targets of the “copi” campaign, live higher up in the water column and feed on algae and plankton. Grass carp eat aquatic plants, while black carp prefer mussels and snails. All four are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other contaminants, Irons said.

“It has a nice, mild flavor… a pleasant surprise that should enhance its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago chef who plans to offer a copi po’boy sandwich at his Ina Mae Tavern. . The fish is adaptable to numerous cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.

Asian carp prefer cool water temperatures such as those found on the shores of the Great Lakes. (CBC)

Still, it can be a tough sell, especially since the fish’s infamous bluntness makes it challenging to produce fillets that many guests expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes may use chopped or ground copi, he said.

Dirk and Terry Fucik, owners of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Chicago, said they’ve been selling carp burgers and offering carp meatballs, tacos and other dishes for years.

Span researchers considered many names — “butterfin” among them — before settling on “copi,” Irons said. It sounded catchy, a tad exotic, even fun, he said.

Span conducted surveys, interviews and focus group meetings with more than 350 Illinois residents, said design director Nick Adam.

Next step: Seek approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which says “conceived or imaginative” fish labels can be used if they’re not misleading or confusing. A well-known example is ‘slimehead’, which became a hit after the market name was changed to ‘orange roughy’.

From 'carp' to 'copi': an unpopular fish gets a makeover in the US
Asian carp first appeared in North America in the 1970s when they were brought in for the US aquaculture industry. If they make their way to the Great Lakes, they will threaten the sport fishing industry and the 7 billion Great Lakes ecosystem. (Illinois Department of Natural Resources)

Illinois also plans to register the “copi” trademark, which will allow industry groups to develop quality control procedures, Irons said.

Other regulatory bodies and scientific groups have their own policies and may not make the switch.

The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and the American Fisheries Society have a committee that lists fish titles, including scientific names in Latin and long-accepted common names. The panel never adopted “Asian carp” as an umbrella term for the invasive species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to stick with “invasive carp” and the four individual names, as the focus is on managing and controlling their distribution, said Midwest executive director Charlie Wooley. The Invasive Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, which involves numerous federal, state, local and Canadian provincial agencies, will do the same.

They dropped the “Asian carp” last year over concerns about anti-Asian bigotry.

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