June 24, 2022

I came across a news release this week that said the state of Illinois had poartnered with others to kick off a campaign on Wednesday to rechristen four species of fish known collectively as Asian carp as “copi”.  The hope is this new label will make the fish more attractive to US consumers.  Turning carp into a popular household and restaurant menu item is one way officials hope to rein in a decades-old invasion threatening native fish, mussels and aquatic plants in the Mississippi Basin, as well as the Great Lakes.  The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is funding the five-year, $600,000 project to rebrand the carp and make them widely available.  More than two dozen distributors, processors, restaurants, and retailers have signed on.  Most of the distributors are in Illinois, but some deliver to multiple states or nationwide.

When I looked online, I found several species of heavy-bodied cyprinid (carp) fishes are collectively known in the US as Asian carp.  Ten species of Asian carp have been significantly introduced outside their native range, and nine of those have been cultivated in Chinese aquaculture for over 1,000 years.  The Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), and black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) are known as the “Four Domesticated Fish” in China and are the important freshwater food fish there.  Bighead and silver carp are the most important food fish worldwide in terms of total aquaculture production.  The Common carp (Cyprinus carpio), amur carp (Cyprinus rubrofuscus), and crucian carp (Carassius carassius) are also common food fishes in China and elsewhere.  Goldfish (Carassius auratus) are mainly cultivated as pet fish.  The Common carp are native to both Eastern Europe and Western Asia and are sometimes called a “Eurasian” carp.  Although they are an important food fish throughout Asia, they are rarely eaten and considered invasive species in the US.  Illinois is hoping being called copi will help.

These carp species were imported in the 1960’s-70’s to gobble algae from Southern sewage lagoons and fish farms.  They escaped and have infested most of the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries.  The fish are crowding out native species like bass and crappie and regulators have spent more than $600 million to keep them from the Great Lakes.  Officials estimate up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) could be netted annually in the Illinois River, and even more are available between the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.  In the US carp are primarily known as muddy-tasting bottom feeders, but the targeted species live higher in the water column, feeding on algae, wetland plants, and small mollusks.  They are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other contaminants.  The fish is adaptable to a variety of cuisines including Cajun, Asian, and Latin, but this could be a hard sell.  The fish is notorious for its y-shaped bones that are harder to remove than fish with pin-shaped bones, and the boniness makes it harder to produce the fillets diners expect.  Many of the best recipe’s use chopped or ground “copi”.

THOUGHTS:  A Chicago communications design company called Span came up with “copi” as a wordplay on “copious”, referring to booming populations of these carp in the US.  Researchers considered several names but thought copi sounded catchy.  The next step is to get approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which says “coined or fanciful” fish labels can be used if they’re not misleading or confusing.  Similar examples are the “slimehead” ( Hoplostethus atlanticus) which it now marketed as orange roughy, and the Patagonian Tooth Fish (Dissostichus eleginoides) which is renamed the Chilean sea bass.  It seems that while a rose by any other name may still smell as sweet, Americans will not eat carp unless it is renamed, if even then.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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