A copi fillet? Illinois hopes the new name for “invasive carp” will win over guests

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – You’re in the mood for 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.

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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 threatening native fish, clams and aquatic plants in the Mississippi and other Midwestern rivers and 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 communication design company, created “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 to the Mississippi River. They have infested most of the river and many tributaries, crowding out native species such as bass and crappie.

Regulators have spent more than $600 million keeping them off the Great Lakes and bodies of water like Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee route. Strategies include putting up electrical barriers at chokepoints 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 popular in other countries. Officials estimate that up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) could be caught annually in the Illinois River between the 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. “Market-driven private sector demand for Copi may be our best hope.”

In the US, carp are best known as muddy-tasting bottom feeders. Bighead and silver carp, the main targets of the “Copi” campaign, live higher in the water column and feed on algae and plankton. Grass 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, 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 numerous cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.

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Still, it could be a tough sell, particularly because the fish’s notorious boniness makes it difficult to produce fillets that many diners expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes can use chopped or ground kopi, 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 and offer carp meatballs, tacos and other dishes.

Span researchers considered many 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, said design chief Nick Adam.

Next step: Obtain approval from the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which states that “embossed or fanciful” fish labels can be used if they are not misleading or confusing. A well-known example is “Slimehead”, which became a hit after its nickname was changed to “Orange Roughy” in the market.

Illinois also plans to register the “copi” trademark to allow industry groups to develop quality control processes, Irons said.

Other regulators and scientific groups have their own guidelines and may not make the switch.

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 the “Asiatic carp” as a generic term for the 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, Midwest director Charlie Wooley said. The Regional Invasive Carp Coordinating Committee, which includes numerous federal, state, local and Canadian provincial agencies, will also do so.

They dropped “Asian Carp” last year over concerns of anti-Asian bigotry.

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