TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – You fancy fish and your waiter suggests an invasive carp dish. Uff, you could say. But how about grilled copi, fresh from the Mississippi?
Here’s the catch: They’re the same.
Illinois and partner organizations on Wednesday launched a market-tested campaign to rename four species previously known collectively as Asiatic carp to “copi,” in hopes the new label will make them more appealing to US consumers.
Making carp a popular dish for homes and restaurants is one way officials hope to stem a decades-long invasion that is threatening native fish, clams and aquatic plants in the Mississippi and other Midwestern rivers the Great Lakes.
“The name ‘carp’ is so harsh that people don’t even try,” said Kevin Irons, deputy fisheries chief at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s healthy, it’s clean, and it tastes really damn good.”
The state’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is funding the five-year, $600,000 project to rename the carp and make it widely available. More than two dozen distributors, processors, restaurants and retailers have signed up. Most are located 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 halt the Carp invasion and worked on the renaming project. “The next few years are very crucial for building trust and acceptance.”
Span, a Chicago-based communications design firm, came up with “copi”. It’s an abbreviated pun on “plentiful” – a reference to the booming population of bighead, silver, grass and black carp in the heartland of the US.
Imported from Asia in the 1960s and 70s to feed on algae from sewage lagoons and fish farms in the Deep South, they escaped into the Mississippi River. They have infested most of the river and many tributaries, crowding out native species such as bass and crappie.
regulators more than $600 million spent to keep them off the Great Lakes and bodies of water like Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include putting up electrical barriers at bottlenecks and hiring crews to harvest the fish for products like fertilizer and pet food. Other technologies – underwater noisemakers, bubble curtains – are in the works.
It would help if more people would eat the critters. Officials estimate that up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) could be netted annually in the Illinois River, a connection 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. “Market-driven private sector demand for Copi may be our best hope.”
In the US, carp are best known as muddy-tasting bottom feeders. However, the four target species live higher in the water column and feed on algae, wetland plants and – in the case of the black carp – mussels and snails. They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other pollutants, Irons said.
“It has a nice, bland flavor…a pleasant surprise that should help cement its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago chef who plans to offer a Copi Po’boy sandwich at his Ina Mae Tavern. The fish suits a variety of cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.
Still, it could be a tough sell, particularly because the fish’s notorious boniness makes it difficult to produce the fillets that many diners expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes can use chopped or ground kopi, he said.
Span researchers considered a number of names — including “butterfin” — 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 Illinois residents, design chief Nick Adam said.
The next step: Get approval from the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which says “embossed or fancy” fish labels can be used if they’re not misleading or confusing. A well-known example is ‘Slimehead’, which became a hit with consumers after its nickname was changed to ‘Orange Bass’ in the market.
Illinois also plans to register the “copi” trademark to allow industry groups to develop quality control processes, Irons said.
Other regulatory bodies and scientific groups have their own guidelines and may not go along with the transition.
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 a generic term for the four invasive species.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to stick with “invasive carp” and the four individual names because of its focus on managing and controlling their spread, said Charlie Wooley, the agency’s Midwest director. The Regional Invasive Carp Coordinating Committee, which includes numerous federal, state, local and Canadian provincial agencies, will also do so.
she dropped “Asian Carp” last year out of fear of anti-Asian bigotry.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter @JohnFlesher
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