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If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em: Illinois fisheries rebrand the invasive Asian carp

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Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jump from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill., June 13, 2012. The state of Illinois is unveiling a market-tested rebranding campaign to make the fish appealing to consumers. (John Flesher/AP)
Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jump from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill., June 13, 2012. The state of Illinois is unveiling a market-tested rebranding campaign to make the fish appealing to consumers. (John Flesher/AP)

This segment was rebroadcast on Nov. 25, 2022. Click here for that audio.

If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.

That may as well be the new battle cry for Illinois fishery managers trying to rebrand four invasive species of Asian carp as copi. They hope the new name will help the bountiful fish land on more restaurant menus and grocery lists. That could slow the carp’s march toward the Great Lakes, where they're expected to wreak ecological havoc by crowding out native species.

Illinois and other states in the region have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building dams and electric barriers to keep the invasive carp out of the lakes — now, they’re hoping to enlist Midwest appetites in the fight.

Dirk Fucik owns Dirk's Fish and Gourmet shop in Chicago, where he’s been serving the fish for a decade.

Dirk Fucik owns Dirk's Fish and Gourmet shop in Chicago. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
Dirk Fucik owns Dirk's Fish and Gourmet shop in Chicago. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

"I was just talking to my copi guy. He's working on it but I don't know if I'm going to get any until later in the week,” he says. “It’s still hard to get. I can’t just order it today for tomorrow consistently.”

Dirk's has recipes for copi burgers, copi meatballs and a carp bolognese sauce for pasta.  Copi is even blended with whitefish and trout for a unique take on gefilte fish around Jewish holidays.

Fucik hopes the name change could net him some new customers.

“It’s sustainably harvested, local, light meat, fresh, flavorful, really nice,” he says.

Since Illinois announced the new name last week, Dirk's has sold out of the 30 pounds of copi that used to last a month. That's still small fry compared to other fish: Fucik says the shop sells 100 pounds of salmon a day. At $6 per pound, however, copi is about a quarter the price of salmon, making it a great deal in the world of fresh seafood, Fucik says.

But there's one problem for customers used to cooking fish filets.

"It’s got bones you don’t even know about in there,” Fucik says. “Everywhere you go you’re finding bones.”

His solution is to grind it up, which means copi is a better substitute for ground beef than cod or sole.

Asian carp bolognese in the freezer. Yum. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
Asian carp bolognese in the freezer. Yum. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Dirk's has been on board with eating and selling Asian carp for years, but even Fucik thinks Illinois appetites are no match for the surging fish population.

"Eliminating Asian carp is like digging a hole in dry sand,” he says. “It just keeps coming in around the edges as fast as you can dig.”

There is reason to hope, though, says Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont who runs the website “Eat the Invaders.”

"When humans really like something they can be pretty good at eradicating or, at least, really reducing the numbers,” Roman says, pointing to the near-extinction of Atlantic cod in the 20th century.

And rebranding has helped create a market for other fish once considered unpalatable. Patagonian toothfish became Chilean seabass. Slimehead was reborn as orange roughy.

But Roman says there’s a risk the rebrand could be too successful.

"If people said, 'Wow copi is so good. Let's put it in our river,’ that would be a worst-case scenario," he says, because in the Great Lakes region, "extinction is a happy ending here.”

Asian carp make up to 70% of the biomass in the Illinois River, but there is evidence that fishing can control the population. Illinois partnered with commercial fishermen in 2012 to harvest millions of pounds of copi out of a portion of the Illinois River. In the area where it’s fished, Asian carp stocks have plummeted since then. Copi meat goes into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizers and pet treats, not for human consumption, says Kevin Irons of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“We did that intentionally not to compete with what we thought was a huge tool for the future, this human consumption, to work together in harmony with everything else to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes,” Irons says. "I really do believe that this may be our best hope.”

Now it's time to unleash that tool of the future. But why the name copi?

"Copi was really head-and-shoulders above everything else,” Irons says. “Being that these fish are copious, it just resonates really well, it seems kind of fresh. We think the name represented this fish as being a light, flaky fish, high in omega-3s. At the end it was kind of a no-brainer."

Not everyone agrees Asian carp needs a new name, though.

Angie Yu runs Two Rivers Fisheries in Wickliffe, Kentucky. The company processes millions of pounds of Asian carp caught in Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee and ships it around the world.

“People around the world know this as Asian carp,” she says. They love it, Yu says, so she'll keep labeling the exports "Asian carp," not copi.

Yu grew up in China eating carp and was surprised to find people in the U.S. avoiding it.

“They are not trash, they are treasure," Yu says.

A copi burger. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
A copi burger. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Asian grocery stores in some cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago already stock whole Asian carp. Yu hopes the new name and marketing push will help Two Rivers Fisheries find a larger domestic market beyond that.

American consumers often confuse the four species known collectively as Asian carp with another species, the common carp, which was imported from Europe in the 1800s. That fish is a bottom-feeder and can contain some funky flavors depending on where it has been. This is not the case for copi, which was brought to the U.S. in the 1960s or 70s and are not bottom-feeders. But the association looms large for some people.

Illinois will soon find out if a new name and marketing campaign can overcome that. Recipes like Dirk's copi burgers could help, too — especially when paired with a little tartar sauce.

This segment aired on July 1, 2022.

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Chris Bentley Twitter Producer, Here & Now
Chris Bentley is a producer for Here & Now, where he has produced daily news and features since 2015. Chris came to the show from Chicago.

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