Rebranding aims to make invasive Asian carp more palatable

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As a brand, Asian carp has two big problems: the name strikes a chord as being both breed insensitive and decidedly unpalatable – a trash fish.

How about a “copy” instead?

At a marketing event on Wednesday, Illinois officials announced the focus group-approved name for the prolific invasive species. With the consumer fresh brand, they seek to reduce the number of fish and reduce the impending ecological threat it poses to the Great Lakes.

Soon, they hope, people will be eating copi sliders and cooking copi tacos, eating the invader’s population.

“’Copi’ has risen to the top. It’s a little chilly, maybe a little Mediterranean,” Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said of the two-year-old name search. “Copi looked like a fish.”

It’s copi as hearty, which, from an environmental point of view, is the problem with these fish.

Introduced from Asia in the 1960s to control weeds and algae, four voracious species – silver, bighead, herbivorous and black carp – escaped from southern ponds and exploded in numbers along the river. Mississippi and its distant tributaries.

Mighty American rivers that once teemed with a diversity of species are now teeming with millions of invasive carp, the largest of which, at 110 pounds, can weigh more than a person. Videos of the big silver fish emerging from the water along the Illinois, Missouri and Ohio rivers have been going viral for years.

Known collectively as Asian carp, they are now at the doorstep of the Great Lakes, massed in significant numbers within 50 miles of Lake Michigan.

Biologists fear that if the fish get there, they’ll suck up the plankton that form the basis of the food web, wreaking havoc on an already overgrown and disrupted Great Lakes ecosystem that nonetheless sustains a $7 billion sport fishing industry.

Illinois officials are betting consumer demand will winnow this supply of carp. They tout the fish’s mild flavor, abundance of omega-3 fatty acids and lower mercury levels than most other fish, pointing out that these species, unlike common carp, are not bottom feeders. .

“It’s not your grandfather’s carp,” Irons said. “He’s not the one rooted in the mud. Because they eat high in the water column, there are lower levels of contaminants.

Biologists estimate that the Illinois River contains 20 to 50 million pounds of fertile invaders just waiting to be exploited and, they hope, overexploited.

Growing demand for the fish would lead to a resurgence of an Illinois River fishing industry that was once one of the most productive in the country, it is believed. It would provide jobs to communities in need and tap into a source of protein that could help alleviate food insecurity while reducing the greatest ecological threat to the Great Lakes, Irons said.

“He ticks all the boxes,” he said.

Chicago chef Brian Jupiter, a two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist and winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” contest, revealed the new name on Wednesday.

In an interview a few days before the event, Jupiter said he planned to offer the fish at his New Orleans-influenced Ina Mae Tavern, perhaps in a po’ boy sandwich made with copycat fishcake. .

“It is a flaky fish with white flesh; the flavor is good and smooth,” he said. “He has a lot of bones, which makes him difficult.”

Most past attempts to market fish have encountered problems when they have touched these bones. The carp’s skeleton is made up of a complex lacework of intermuscular bones that branch out in a Y-shape deep inside the flesh of the fish, creating a tricky puzzle for a filleting knife.

Those who cut boneless pieces say a 40-pound carp produces less than four pounds of strips of fish a few inches long and about a quarter inch thick.

For this reason, the new marketing push focuses on minced fish, produced by a contraption the size of a washing machine that extracts the white flesh from the bone. Although the result looks like ground turkey, it’s technically not ground.

Persuading consumers to adopt minced fish can be a challenge.

“Some communities are more receptive to minced fish, but I think it will socialize it,” Irons said. “Maybe that will be the benefit of using it as the first fish: not only are you presenting the copi as a great dinner protein, but you could also say, ‘I never thought of using minced fish’ .”

Jupiter said he was initially puzzled when he received samples.

“I was like, ‘What is this?’ ” he said. “That was the last thing I wanted to work with in terms of the cups they sent. But I found it very easy to use in the cake format. As children, we ate fish sticks. This allows you great versatility.

It’s one of two dozen restaurants, stores and wholesalers lined up to start selling copi on Wednesday. The recipes will be available on ChooseCopi.com.

A 2018 state report on the market potential of invasive top-feeding carp noted that consumers viewed them as “trash fish,” associating them with common bottom-dwelling carp introduced to the United States in the mid of the 19th century.

Many in the renaming effort say carp is a four-letter word. They also cite a precedent: the orange roughy? He was once known as the slimehead. Patagonian toothfish? Formerly Patagonian toothfish.

Even Asian carp have had previous brand makeovers. Colloquially, they were called Illinois river and bass rabbits. An attempt in 2010 was to call them Kentucky tuna. A new carp processing plant on the Illinois River calls its product shiruba (money in Japanese). And Louisiana chef Philippe Parola trademarked the Silverfin brand and has worked for more than a decade to build a company that sells it.

Parola, who began cooking with invasive rodents in the 1990s while developing recipes for nutria, said he welcomes the push for copi, believing it can reduce ecological damage and also convince consumers to his Silverfin. But he warned it won’t be easy. “Many have tried,” he warned.

To make the “copi” stick, Illinois will trademark the name and seek adoption by the US Food and Drug Administration. For now, copi-tagged fish should be identified as carp, Irons said.

Some previous moves to change the name have focused on racial sensitivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped using the name last year to “get away from any terms that cast a negative light on Asian culture and people,” an official explained.

“There seems to be a stigma on many levels with this fish,” said Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Jayette Bolinski. “The main reason we are changing our name is that research shows that consumers associate Asian carp with an unattractive and unappetizing fish. Of course, removing the racial reference in the name is another reason we’re doing this.

If a name change stimulates the appetite for fish, an industry of workers and infrastructure will be needed to satisfy it. A fledgling commercial carp fishing industry has developed around the Peoria Pool, a 73-mile stretch of the Illinois River where the fish spawn prolifically.

In 2020, Sorce Feshwater Co. opened a processing plant on the shore of the pool and last year processed around 5 million pounds of invasive carp, said company president Roy Sorce.

Sorce charges $5.95 a pound for ground fish and up to $10 a pound for strips, as they are cut by hand.

A few dozen anglers banded together to form the Midwest Fish Co-Op.

Everyone agrees that the industry has not reached critical mass and that it will need more people to catch the fish. Clint Carter, a fisherman whose parents also worked in Illinois, said it took at least $170,000 to buy the boat, truck and equipment needed to get into the business.

“There are a lot of people who see this as a free protein source, but there are a lot of savings that need to be considered for this to work,” he said.

Carter offers “Asian carp” at his Springfield, Ill., fish store — three-quarter pounds of fried boneless strips, pickles and onions on bread for $7.99. He sold four orders on a recent Saturday.

“I’ve fed probably 10,000 people samples over the years, and I’ve had maybe two people who said they didn’t like it,” Carter said. “It’s mostly this mental stigma that it’s a carp.”

Sorce opened the processing plant because he became convinced that fish could help alleviate growing food insecurity around the world. However, this market has not yet adopted it. A major hunger relief organization likes its product but can’t take it because its rules prohibit the use of minced fish, he said, which he says needs to change.

For now, he must reluctantly place some hope in the pet food market, which already uses some of the fish.

“I love my dog, but this fish could literally solve a lot of problems for people in need, for hungry people,” Sorce said.

Meanwhile, the population is growing, increasing the threat to the Great Lakes.

The lakes are connected to the Mississippi Basin by canals completed in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which diverted the city’s sewage away from its source of drinking water in Lake Michigan.

To prevent fish from swimming in the channel, engineers in 2002 lit the first of several electric underwater barriers about 37 miles from the lake.

A more ambitious barrier project is underway at Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois, identified by the US Army Corps of Engineers as the “critical pinch point” between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

The $858 million project, currently in the design phase, will include another electric barrier, but will add fish-frightening underwater acoustics and an intimidating bubble curtain.

Planners say their barriers have a better chance of success if the fish population is first reduced by a thriving fishery.

“With the commercial fishery, what we want to do is attack the population coming up the Illinois River and fish out these invasive species and keep the population down or as far downstream as possible,” said Andrew Leichty, of the Brandon Road. Project Manager.

Marc Gaden, legislative liaison for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, called the risk associated with the “grave” of the fish. Renaming carp to foster a fishing industry is a helpful step, he said.

“Make lemonade if you have lemons,” Gaden said, “and maybe fish them out to at least keep a lid on them.”

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