TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (TSWT) — You want fish and your server offers you a dish of invasive carp. Ugh, you might say. But what about grilled copi, fresh from the Mississippi River?
Here’s the catch: it’s the same thing.
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Illinois and partner organizations launched a market-tested campaign on Wednesday to rebrand four species previously known collectively as Asian carp as “copi,” hoping the new label will make them more appealing to American consumers.
Turning carp into a popular item on household and restaurant menus is one way officials hope to stem a decades-old invasion threatening native fish, mussels and aquatic plants in Mississippi and other Midwestern rivers. , as well as the Great Lakes.
“The name ‘carp’ is so harsh that people won’t even try it,” said Kevin Irons, deputy chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s healthy, clean and tastes really good.”
The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is funding the five-year, $600,000 project to rebrand the carp and make it widely available. More than two dozen distributors, processors, restaurants and retailers have signed up. Most are in Illinois, but some ship to multiple states or nationwide.
“This could be a tremendous breakthrough,” said John Goss, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to stop the carp invasion and worked on the name change project. “The next two years will be very critical in building trust and acceptance.”
Span, a communications design firm from Chicago, came up with “copi.” It’s a shorthand pun on “hearty” – a reference to the burgeoning populations of bighead, silver, herbivorous and black carp in the heartland of the United States.
Imported from Asia in the 1960s and 70s to swallow algae from sewage lagoons and fish farms in the Deep South, they escaped into the Mississippi River. They infested most of the river and many tributaries, crowding out native species like bass and crappie.
Regulators have spent more than $600 million keeping them away from the Great Lakes and waters such as Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include setting up electric barriers at choke points and hiring crews to harvest fish for products such as fertilizer and pet food. Other technologies — underwater noisemakers, air bubble curtains — are in preparation.
It would help if more people ate the creatures. Officials estimate that up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) could be caught each year in the Illinois River, a link between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan. Even more are available between the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.
“Government subsidies alone will not end this war,” Goss said. “The private sector, market-driven demand for copying may be our best hope.”
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In the United States, carp are primarily known as muddy-tasting bottom feeders. But the four target species live higher in the water column, feeding on algae, wetland plants and, in the case of black carp, mussels and snails. They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other contaminants, Irons said.
“It has a nice, smooth flavor…a pleasant surprise that should help repair its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago chef who plans to offer a copi po’boy sandwich at his Ina Mae Tavern. The fish adapts to a variety of cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.
Still, it could be a tough sell, especially because the fish’s notorious bone makes it difficult to produce the fillets many diners expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes can use chopped or ground copi, he said.
Span’s researchers looked at a number of names — including “butterfin” — before deciding on “copi,” Irons said. It sounded catchy, a bit exotic, even fun, he says.
Span conducted surveys, interviews and focus group meetings involving more than 350 Illinois residents, design director Nick Adam said.
The next step: seek approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which states that “invented or fanciful” fish labels can be used if they are not misleading or confusing. A familiar example is “slimehead”, which became a hit with consumers after its market nickname was changed to “orange roughy”.
Illinois also plans to register the “copi” trademark, allowing industry groups to develop quality control procedures, Irons said.
Other regulatory bodies and scientific groups have their own policies and may not accept the change.
The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and the American Fisheries Society have a committee that lists fish titles, including Latin scientific names and long-accepted common names. The committee never adopted “Asian carp” as a generic term for the four invasive species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to stick with “invasive carp” and the four individual names because its goal is to manage and control their spread, said Charlie Wooley, the agency’s director for the Midwest. The Invasive Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, which includes many Canadian federal, state, local and provincial agencies, will do the same.
They dropped “Asian carp” last year due to concerns about anti-Asian bigotry.
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