From ‘carp’ to ‘copi’: unpopular fish get a makeover

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – You are in the mood for fish and your server suggests a dish with invasive carp. Uh, you could say. But what about fried copy, fresh from the Mississippi River?

Here’s the catch: They’re the same.

Illinois and partner organizations on Wednesday launched a market-tested campaign to rename as “copi” four species formerly known as Asian carp, hoping the new brand will make them more attractive to U.S. consumers.

Making carp a popular household and restaurant menu item is one way officials hope to curb a decades-old invasion that threatens native fish, mussels and aquatic plants in the Mississippi and other rivers in the Midwest as well as the Great Lakes.

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

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

“This could be a huge breakthrough,” said John Goss, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to halt the carp invasion and worked on the renaming project. “The next few years are very crucial to building trust and acceptance.”

Span, a communications design firm from Chicago, invented “copi.” It’s an abbreviated pun on “real” – a reference to the thriving populations of bighead, silver, grass and black carp in the American heartland.

Imported from Asia in the 1960s-70s to swallow algae from Deep South sewage lagoons and fish farms, they fled into the Mississippi. They have infected most of the river and many tributaries and displaced native species such as bass and crappie.

Regulators have spent more than $ 600 million keeping them away from the great lakes and waters like Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include placing electrical barriers at choking points and hiring herds to harvest the fish for products such as manure and pet food. Other technologies – underwater silencers, air bubble curtains – are on the way.

It would help if more people ate the creatures that are popular in other countries. Officials estimate that up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) can be netted annually in the Illinois River between Mississippi and Lake Michigan. Even more are available from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.

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

In the United States, carp are primarily known as muddy tasting forages. Bighead and silver carp, the primary targets of the “copi” campaign, live higher in the water column and feed on algae and plankton. Pumpkin 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 pollutants, Irons said.

“It has a nice, mild taste … a pleasant surprise that should help correct its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago chef who plans to offer a copi po’boy sandwich on his Ina Mae Tavern. The fish can be adapted to several cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.

Still, it can be hard to sell, especially because the fish’s infamous bone-making makes it challenging to produce fillets that many diners expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes can use chopped or painted copy, he said.

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

Span researchers considered many names – “butterfins” among them – before settling on “copi,” Irons said. It sounded catchy, a bit exotic, even funny, he said.

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

Next step: Seek approval from the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which states that “invented or imaginative” fishing labels can be used if they are not misleading or confusing. A well-known example is “slimehead”, which became a hit after its market name was changed to “orange roughy”.

Illinois also plans to register the “copi” trademark, enabling industry teams to develop quality control procedures, Irons said.

Other regulatory agencies 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 fishing titles, including scientific names in Latin and long-accepted common names. The panel has 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 its focus is on managing and controlling their spread, said Charlie Wooley, Midwest director. The Invasive Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, which involves numerous federal, state, local and Canadian provincial agencies, will do the same.

They dropped “Asian carp” last year due to concerns over anti-Asian bigotry.

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Follow John Flesher on Twitter @JohnFlesher

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