If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em: Illinois fisheries are renaming invasive Asian carp

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If you can’t beat them, eat them.

This might as well be the new battle cry from Illinois fisheries managers trying to rename four invasive species of Asian carp to copi. They hope the new name will help plentiful fish land on more restaurant menus and grocery lists. This could slow the march of carp to the Great Lakes, where they are 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 invasive carp out of lakes — now they hope to enlist Midwestern appetites in the struggle.

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

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

Dirk’s offers recipes for copi burgers, copi meatballs and carp bolognese sauce for pasta. Copi is even mixed with whitefish and trout for a unique take on gefilte fish during Jewish holidays.

Fucik hopes the name change will bring him new customers.

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

Since Illinois announced the new name last week, Dirk’s has sold all 30 copybooks that lasted a month. It’s still small fry compared to other fish: Fucik says the store sells 100 pounds of salmon a day. At $6 a pound, however, the copi costs about a quarter of the price of salmon, making it a bargain in the world of fresh seafood, Fucik says.

But there is a problem for customers accustomed to cooking fish fillets.

“There are bones you don’t even know exist in there,” Fucik said. “Wherever you go, you find bones.”

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

Dirk’s has been on board with eating and selling Asian carp for years, but even Fucik thinks Illinois’ appetites aren’t keeping up with the booming fish population.

“Killing out Asian carp is like digging a hole in dry sand,” he says. “He keeps coming around the edges as fast as you can dig.”

There are reasons for hope, however, 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 good enough to eradicate or at least really reduce the numbers,” Roman says, pointing to the near extinction of Atlantic cod in the 20th century.

And the rebranding has helped create a market for other fish once considered unpalatable. Patagonian toothfish became the Chilean sea bass. Slimehead is reborn as an orange roughy.

But Roman says there is a risk the name change will be too successful.

“If people said, ‘Wow copi is so good. Let’s put it in our river’, that would be the 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 from part of the Illinois River. In the area where it is fished, Asian carp stocks have fallen since then. Copi meat goes into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizer and pet treats, not for human consumption, says Kevin Irons of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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

Now is the time to unleash this tool of the future. But why the name copy?

“Copi was truly head and shoulders above everything else,” Irons says. “Given that these fish are hearty, it resonates really well, it looks pretty fresh. We think the name represented this fish as being a light, flaky fish that was rich in omega-3s. In the end, it was sort of obvious.

However, not everyone agrees that Asian carp needs a new name.

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 them around the world.

“People all over the world know this as Asian carp,” she says. They love it, says Yu, so she will continue to label the exports “Asian carp”, not copy.

Yu grew up in China eating carp and was surprised to see people in the United States avoiding it.

“It’s not trash, it’s treasure,” Yu said.

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 efforts will help Two Rivers Fisheries find a larger domestic market beyond that.

American consumers often confuse the four species collectively known as Asian carp with another species, the common carp, which was imported from Europe in the 1800s. This fish is a bottom feeder and can contain funky flavors depending on where he’s been. This is not the case with copi, which was introduced to the United States in the 1960s or 1970s and is not a staple food. But the association occupies an important place for some people.

Illinois will soon find out if a new name and marketing campaign can overcome that. Recipes like Dirk’s Copy Burgers might help too – especially when paired with a bit of tartar sauce.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

An Asian carp, shaken by an electric current from a research boat, jumps from the Illinois River near Havana, Illinois June 13, 2012. The state of Illinois unveils a rebranding campaign being tested on market to make fish attractive to consumers.  (John Flesher/AP)

An Asian carp, shaken by an electric current from a research boat, jumps from the Illinois River near Havana, Illinois June 13, 2012. The state of Illinois unveils a rebranding campaign being tested on market to make fish attractive to consumers. (John Flesher/AP)
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