TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — You’re in the mood for fish and your server suggests a dish of invasive carp. Ugh, you might say. But how about broiled copi, fresh from the Mississippi River?
Here’s the catch: They’re the same thing.
Illinois and partner organizations kicked off a market-tested campaign Wednesday to rechristen as “copi” four species previously known collectively as Asian carp, hoping the new label will make them more attractive to U.S. 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 and other Midwestern rivers, as well as the Great Lakes.
“The ‘carp’ name is so harsh that people won’t even try it,” said Kevin Irons, assistant fisheries chief with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s healthy, clean and it really tastes pretty darn good.”
The federal 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 are in Illinois, but some deliver to multiple states or nationwide.
“This could be a tremendous breakthrough,” said John Goss, who led the Obama administration’s effort to halt the carp invasion and worked on the renaming project. “The next couple of years are very critical for building confidence and acceptance.”
Span, a Chicago communications design company, came up with “copi.” It’s an abbreviated wordplay on “copious” — a reference to the booming populations of bighead, silver, grass and black carp in the U.S. heartland.
Imported from Asia in the 1960s and ’70s to gobble algae from Deep South sewage lagoons and fish farms, they escaped into 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 to keep them from the Great Lakes and waters such as Lake Barkley on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include electric barriers at choke points and harvesting the fish fertilizer and pet food. Other technologies — underwater noisemakers, air bubble curtains — are in the works.
It would help if more people ate the critters. Officials estimate up to 50 million pounds could be netted annually in the Illinois River, a link between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan. Even more are available between the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.
“Government subsidies alone will not end this war,” Goss said. “Private-sector, market-driven demand for copi could be our best hope.”
In the U.S., carp are known primarily as muddy-tasting bottom feeders. But the four targeted species live higher in the water column, feeding on algae, wetland plants and — in the case of black carp — mussels and snails. They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other contaminants, Irons said.
“It has a nice, mild flavor ... a pleasant surprise that should help fix its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago chef who plans to offer a copi po’boy sandwich at his Ina Mae Tavern. The fish is adaptable to a variety of cuisines including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he said.
Span researchers considered a number of names — “butterfin” among them — before settling on “copi,” Irons said. It sounded catchy, a tad exotic, even fun, he said.