JACKSONVILLE — The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is rebranding Asian carp — the invasive species that now makes up an estimated 70% of fish in the Illinois River — in hopes of convincing Americans to help eat away at the fish’s overpopulation problem.
Four species of Asian carp — bighead carp, silver carp, grass carp and black carp — now will be known as copi — a hopefully appetizing play on the word “copious” and a name chosen based on a $600,000 multi-year marketing study to assess Illinois residents’ thoughts on the fish.
Calling it a name-based perception issue for a fish widely eaten elsewhere in the world, Nick Adam of Span design studio in Chicago, who led the research, said surveys, interviews and focus groups with more than 350 Illinois residents showed that 85% of participants had heard of Asian carp but only 5% had eaten it.
“We know that renaming works,” Adam said, noting that orange roughly was known as slimehead, Chilean sea bass once was called Patagonian toothfish and even avocado and kiwi used to have far less popular monikers.
The United States is the only nation in the world where Asian carp is not commonly eaten, according to John Goss, former invasive carp adviser to the White House.
“They’re not in the Great Lakes and we’re doing everything we can to keep them out,” Goss said.
That includes convincing Americans to make copi burgers, copi sliders and other copi-based dishes part of their regular menu.
In announcing the rebranding effort Wednesday during a Zoom call, natural resources officials got support from Chicago-based chef and “Chopped” champion Brian Jupiter of Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern and Dirk and Terry Fucik of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Chicago.
“It’s a great substitute for ground beef,” Terry Fucik said, noting that among Dirk’s popular menu items are copi burgers, copi tacos and copi bolognese.
Jim Garvey, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale fisheries expert and director of SIU’s Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, has studied bighead carp for more than 20 years. He was not part of Wednesday’s announcement but said eating away at the problem may be the easiest, cheapest and best solution.
An electrical barrier on the Illinois River near Chicago appears to have succeeded so far in keeping the invasive species out of Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes, but those working to reduce or erase the problem don’t want to rely on one solution, he said.
“It seems simple, but it took a long time to determine that commercial harvest is probably the best way to keep them from becoming abundant below the barrier,” Garvey said, noting that other ideas, such as poisoning the invasive fish, have proven ineffective or too costly.
Fishing for copi won’t be regulated the way it is for native species, Garvey said.
“We would love copi to become extinct in the United States, but … it just doesn’t seem like these fish are going to be completely reduced,” he said. “But even if copi were to one day disappear, we are blessed with a variety of very good native fish” on the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Encouraging commercial fishing with a focus on Asian carp would not harm Illinois’ fishing industry, Garvey said.
“If our commercial fishermen had to go back to fishing native fishes” after eradicating copi, they could, he said. “We should celebrate it, if it happens.”
While the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has rolled out a plan to tout copi, its name change isn’t yet official. The state expects to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration by year’s end to formally change the name. In the meantime, grocery store packaging will describe the fish both as carp and copi.
Asian carp originally were imported from Southeast Asia to the US to help clean fish farm retention ponds in the South. But flooding and accidental releases in the 1970s allowed them to migrate up the Mississippi River system. Local, state and federal agencies since have worked to keep the invasive species from Lake Michigan, where it would threaten a $7 billion-a-year commercial fishing industry and a $16 billion-a-year tourism industry in the Great Lakes region.