Copi is short for copious. Nick Adam, one of the lead organizers on the rebrand, called the name clean, fresh and flavorful, just like the fish. They are also copious in health benefits and in sheer volume. In some parts of the Mississippi River region, the carp represent 70% of the fish in the ecosystem.
John Goss, a former White House adviser on invasive carp, credited the Illinois DNR with taking the lead on this project.
“Enjoying copi in a restaurant or at home is one of the easiest things people can do to help protect our waterways and Lake Michigan,” Goss said during Wednesday’s presentation. “As home to the largest continuous link between Lake Michigan and the copi-filled Mississippi River system, Illinois has a unique responsibility in the battle to keep invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. I’m proud of Illinois, its partners and other states for rising to this challenge.”
The DNR launched a new website — choosecopi.com — which includes facts about the fish, recipes and a list of retailers and distributors that carry copi.
The Illinois DNR’s push to fight Asian carp is to prevent the invasive species from making it into the Great Lakes. As the former name suggests, copi is from Asia, brought to the U.S. more than 50 years ago as a chemical-free alternative to try to clear up algae and weeds. However, the fish expanded and migrated up the Mississippi River, threatening to drown out other fish species.
For the typical restaurant, carp is considered a bottom-of-the-barrel fish. As bottom-feeders, they have a darker flesh and a strong taste. Copi carp are different – copi actually incorporates four different species, feeding on plankton, mussels or grasses, but they are all top feeders.
Chef Brian Jupiter, the 2022 “Chopped” champion, that has worked with the DNR in this rebranding effort, called copi a “clean slate,” and something that works well with spices and marinades.
“Copi is more savory than tilapia, cleaner tasting than catfish, and firmer than cod,” Jupiter said in a release. “It’s the perfect canvas for creativity — pan fried, steamed, broiled, baked, roasted or grilled.”
Better yet, carp is also quite healthy. Copi is second only to wild salmon in protein content and is high in both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. And since they eat primarily plankton and vegetation, they have very little to no mercury or lead.
It has yet to catch on in the United States, but the rest of the world has bought in on copi. Asian carp are the most eaten freshwater fish in the world. In China, carp have been farmed and eaten for more than 1000 years.
The name does not yet have approval from the Food and Drug Administration. One of the requirements for FDA approval is widespread use of the new name. Until the FDA decides the name is popular enough, copi can be sold but must also be listed as carp. Restaurants, however, do not have to follow that guideline.
Rebranding has worked for certain federal agencies. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has two notable successes. One is “Chilean sea bass” which previously went by “Patagonian toothfish.” “Orange roughy” became a hot commodity only after the agency changed its name from “slimehead” in the 1970s.
Will Illinois’ effort to rebrand the fish pay off? Time will tell. Along with the rebrand campaign, which is funded by the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, they are offering other incentives to fisheries and restaurants to catch and cook the fish. The state has also signed deals with several food distributors, including Gordon Food Service to sell copi across the country.
Many environmental groups, including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, are applauding the rebranding push, but COO Molly Flanagan says it is still imperative for state and federal agencies to do more to protect the Great Lakes.
“While we appreciate Illinois’ marketing efforts to address the growing threat of invasive carp, more carp making its way to consumers’ plates will not fix the problem,” Flanagan said in a release. “The state must keep its eye on the long game and focus on building protections at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam that are essential to keeping invasive carp from reaching Lake Michigan.”