Can Rebranding Invasive Carp Make It More Appealing to Eat?

Illinois is giving the problematic fish a new name—copi—in hopes of tempting more diners to chow down

Fresh copi on ice
Fresh copi on ice Courtesy of Alex Garcia / Illinois Department of Natural Resources

For decades, invasive species of carp have been wreaking havoc on lakes and waterways in the American Midwest. One way to help tackle the infestation is simply to catch, cook and eat the fish, but many diners turn up their noses when they hear the word carp.

Now, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other partners hope that giving the fish a fresh new image will make them more appealing to eat. They’ve given the invasive species a new name, “copi,” in hopes that people will order copi dishes at restaurants or even cook up the fish at home.

Four species are generally included under the broader invasive carp umbrella, per the U.S. Geological Survey: bighead, black, grass and silver carp. The common carp was introduced in North America in the mid-1800s. But carp began to spread widely when the other four carp species were imported to the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s to eat algae in wastewater treatment plants and aquaculture ponds, as well as to serve as a source of food.

Copi tacos
Copi tacos Courtesy of Alex Garcia / Illinois Department of Natural Resources

The fish escaped into the Mississippi River, then continued their spread into other rivers and beyond. Their population grew quickly, and they began to crowd out native fish species, outcompeting them for food (different carp species feed on plants, plankton, on up in size to endangered freshwater snail species). Invasive carp are also thought to lower water quality, which ultimately harms underwater ecosystems and can kill off other native species like freshwater mussels. (The fish were once collectively called “Asian carp,” but state governments and federal agencies now refer to them as “invasive carp” because of concerns over bigotry toward Asian culture and people.)

Federal, state and local officials have since spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep the invasive fish in check, and most importantly, out of the Great Lakes. If the fish swim into Lake Michigan, they could threaten the commercial fishing and tourism industries, which together are responsible for billions of dollars of economic activity. Other methods for controlling the fish include physical barriers, poisons, removal and the introduction of predators.

Natural resources officials have long tried to tempt the public with invasive carp dishes, but haven’t had much luck. The rebranding initiative is a big push to change that.

“The ‘carp’ name is so harsh that people won’t even try it,” Kevin Irons, assistant fisheries chief for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, tells the Associated Press’ John Flesher. “But it’s healthy, clean and it really tastes pretty darn good.”

In addition to giving the fish a new name, the project brings together more than 30 restaurants, distributors, processors and retailers from across Illinois, Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington D.C., all working together to get copi on more plates. The project’s website even suggests recipes provided by participating restaurants, including copi fresh fish tacos, a copi firehouse fish burger and copi smoked fish dip. Funding for the project— $600,000 over five years—comes from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a group of federal agencies working to protect the Great Lakes, the largest system of fresh surface water in the world.

The new name comes from the word “copious,” a nod to the sheer abundance of these fish. It was thought up by Span, a Chicago-based communications firm, the AP reports. Fishermen could harvest 20 to 50 million pounds of copi from the Illinois River alone each year, per a statement from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with “hundreds of millions” of additional pounds in other waterways.

The fish have a mild flavor and are high in omega-3 fatty acids. They’re top-feeding fish that gobble up vegetation and plankton, which means they contain very little mercury or lead, if any. The fish do have intramuscular bones that can make it difficult for chefs to cook them as filets, but they’re great for chopped or ground preparations like burgers and po’boy sandwiches.

Copi po' boy sandwich
A copi po' boy sandwich Courtesy of Alex Garcia / Illinois Department of Natural Resources

“Copi is more savory than tilapia, cleaner tasting than catfish and firmer than cod,” Brian Jupiter, chef and owner of Chicago’s Ina Mae Tavern, one of the restaurants taking part in the Restoration Initiative, says in a statement. “It’s the perfect canvas for creativity—pan fried, steamed, broiled, baked, roasted or grilled. Copi can be ground for burgers, fish cakes, dumplings and tacos.”

Organizers hope copi will catch on quickly, in part because they’re planning to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to officially change the name and widespread use of the new moniker could help them win approval.

This isn’t the first time that exporters and natural resources experts have given previously unappetizing foods a new name—with lots of success. Kiwis were once known as Chinese gooseberries. Peekytoe crabs used to be called mud crabs. And slimehead fish became orange roughy.

“Copi is a great name: Short, crisp and easy to say,” says Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in a statement. “What diner won’t be intrigued when they read copi tacos or copi burgers on a menu?”

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