I was not tuned in when Slimeheads became Orange Roughies; Patagonian Toothfish became Chilean Sea Bass; or in certain markets Whore’s Eggs reverted to Sea Urchins. But today I was there (virtually) when the problematic fish known as Asian Carp became known as Copi.
At least that is what a consortium, led by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), would like people to call the fish now, as announced in a midday Zoom meeting that was 90% marketing pitch and 10% Q&A session.
Asian Carp have become a serious problem in midwestern rivers and lakes. They overpopulate; drive out native species; decimate food supplies such as plankton, algae, and endangered mollusks; and, as you have probably seen in videos, often swarm the surface and fly through the air, hitting boaters.
There are actually four species involved: Grass Carp, Bighead Carp, Black Carp, and Silver Carp. Silver Carp in particular have made the Illinois River, which runs (with the aid of canals) 270 miles from Chicago to the Mississippi River above St. Louis, “ground zero” for invasion. Seventy percent of the “biomass” in the river is Asian Carp. One professional fisherman in the Zoom video said he can easily catch 10-12,000 pounds per day.
This also puts the Great Lakes’ environmental health and $7 billion fishing industry and $16 billion recreational boating industry at high risk. The fish eats half its weight every day, and one female can lay a million eggs per year. They have no natural predators.
Concerns over jingoism and racism had long been expressed about the term Asian Carp, in the way they were more recently with “Chinese virus” for Covid. The US Fish and Wildlife Service had already agreed to call them “invasive carp.”
Illinois DNR hired a marketing and design studio in Chicago to ask 350 Illinois residents about the “misunderstood” fish, “one of the most eaten around the globe,” which happened to have “a name-based perception issue.” The studio, as one tool of the consortium, hoped to “build…out the story of the fish”—in short, to get people not just in the Midwest but all over the country to want to eat it, and therefore reduce Asian Carp populations and their bad effects on the environment.
“Harvest is one of our strongest tools,” the state biologist said.
Their name has made people think Asian Carp are bottom feeders and have the dark flesh of normal carp. But Asian Carp—Copi now, for “copious”—are top feeders and are said to have a light, delicate flesh, more like neutral white fish such as cod or tilapia, but perhaps with better texture. On the Zoom presentation a chef, a Chicago TV personality, and the Assistant Chief of Fisheries for Illinois admitted the “skeletal structure is a little challenging,” and “odd,” so the meat is often ground instead of filleted. Restauranteurs in the pitch suggested it should be substituted for ground beef in burgers, croquettes, and even Bolognese sauce. One participant said each of the species has a slightly different taste and could be used for different dishes. Above all, they are being described as “a protein source” that will “restore commercial fishing in the Midwest.”
“Time to roll up our sleeves” and get to eating, someone on Zoom said.
“We need to eat Copi so our native fish can rebound,” a former White House advisor on nonnative species said.
“The way to beat it is to eat it,” Terry Fucik, co-owner of Dirk’s Fish &Gourmet Shop said.
The website for the campaign is ChooseCopi.com, and presenters stressed that people everywhere should look for their nearest source and give the fish a try. (It is being picked up for national distribution by Gorton and another large manufacturer-distributor, they said.) When I looked, there were no restaurants, fish markets, fish distributors, or fish processors listed in my area, but it is early yet, and the menu will no doubt change.