During the beautiful summer days of the early 1990s, I would get together with any of my buddies that were around, secure a vehicle with enough gas, and head east on the ‘Interstate 80 for a day of sun and fun at Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana.
Sometimes we were greeted by thousands of small dead fish and their associated smells. After the first one or two times, which we attributed to industrial carcasses looming nearby along the northwest Indiana skyline, mass fatalities have become routine, being the subject of jokes rather than revulsion. We would get as far away from the worst of the carnage as possible and go about our business of frolicking, secret drinking and soaking in the sun.
It wasn’t long before our idyllic summer days were eaten away with work, and those trips to the beach became much less frequent. During this time, mass mortality episodes involving fish, an invasive species called alewife, also went out. Cases of dead alewife became rare in the 2000s.
Gaspereaux, traditionally a small saltwater fish that travels in large schools, were first reported in the Great Lakes in the 1930s and gradually became so numerous that Chinook salmon and Coho salmon were introduced in the lakes to eat them.
Officials said the alewife killings were likely not the result of Lake Michigan contamination or pollution, as they were the only species affected. Instead, they hypothesized that the fish were victims of poor spawning conditions and that over time the alewife returned to intermittent mortality rates. In 2013, the number of salmon stocked in lake michigan was halved, and in 2016 the amount of fish stocked was again reduced. There just wasn’t enough alewife for the salmon to eat.
In the decades immediately following their introduction to the Great Lakes, alewife became an important part of commercial fishing on Lake Michigan, as overfishing and improved fishing technology had decimated native populations of lake trout, sturgeon, walleye and other target species. In the 1960s, non-native smelt, common carp, and gaspereau were the most fished fish in the Great Lakes, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Over time, the massive water bodies were no longer able to sustain much of the commercial fishing.
Careful management over the past few decades has brought back some of the fishing opportunities, but mostly for sport fishers.
Attention on invasive species shifted downstate to the Illinois River system around 2000 when Asian carp began showing up in the nets of commercial fishermen. A hundred years ago, the Illinois River contained the nation’s third-largest freshwater fishery, behind the Great Lakes and the Columbia River, according to Kevin Irons, deputy chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Illinois-based companies were shipping tank cars full of bigmouth buffalo and other freshwater fish to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and, of course, Chicago.
“Catfish, bullhead, largemouth bass – it was opportunity land early on,” Irons said. “The Illinois River was a huge source of fish protein and freshwater fish.”
Of course they were overfished, although a small fishing industry remained on the river until the 1990s when Asian carp started to appear.
The fish were first brought to the United States in the 1970s to eat algae and plankton at commercial southern catfish farms and headed north.
“It went from finding one or two to filling nets. There were thousands of them there,” Irons said. “They piled them up along the Illinois River.”
It was a scene that probably made gaspereau deaths seem tame in comparison. Irons said that within a few years, commercial fishing companies along Illinois found markets for the fish, turning them into fertilizer, dog treats, “all kinds of fish stuff.”
But still, fish continued to swarm in the state’s southern waters as electronic barriers and other means were used as authorities tried to keep fish out of Lake Michigan.
There have been a few efforts to bring Asian carp – an umbrella term for bighead, silver, grass, and black carp – to human tables as well, but none have really caught on.
“It has consistently performed well in taste tests, outperforming catfish,” Irons said. “But it didn’t make much noise.”
The blame fell on the name.
“They were tied together with common carp from the start,” Irons said. “Most people had negative ideas about carp. It has a different and stronger flavor than most fish in the world, mainly due to its eating habits.
Like catfish, common carp feed on mud from the bottom of the river. Asian carp, on the other hand, eat plankton and algae, so they taste very different, he said.
“We went to see some fishermen, we went to the fish market and said what can we do?” said Irons. “They said we had to help market this because the name is wrong.”
“A new brand was needed” Irons said, and last week, “copi” was officially unveiled after a $600,000 federally funded initiative that included image consultants as well as top chefs.
“Copi is one of the most cultured food fish in the world,” Irons said. “We have to take advantage of it here.”
One of the first places to serve copi as part of the new rebranding is a natural fit. Calumet Fisheries, at 95th Street and the Calumet River, harkens back to when nearby Lake Michigan supported commercial fishing.
On Thursday, deputy director Ivan Huerta tasted the copi for the first time, fresh from the smoker of Calumet Fisheries.
“It’s good,” he said. “I’ll try when it’s cold.”
Huerta said the texture of the smoked copi is “similar to chicken breast” and the taste is “close to whitefish”. But it has a lot more bones than the smoked salmon which is the most popular dish at the venerable fish shack.
“It will be a little extra work” to eat, he said.
On Thursday, the day after the fish’s name change was announced to much fanfare, people were still not lining up at Calumet Fisheries to buy the renamed fish, although Huerta is cautiously optimistic about his chances of gaining prominence.
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“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Irons was convinced that the copi would “find a prominent place on the menu” once it outgrew its association with common carp, but he is under no illusions that we are trying to solve a problem of invasive species, despite a toll in Lake Michigan. and the Illinois River which indicates otherwise.
“That may or may not solve the problem,” he said. “But it adds to our ability to be better prepared.”
Meanwhile, alewife, which spent most of the 2000s quietly feeding sport fish, may also have a renewed need for a facelift.
Just last week there was another gaspereau die-off in Lake Michigan.
“Mortality is higher than normal this year and something we haven’t seen in years,” Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement. the agency.
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].