Don’t call it a carp: Illinois dresses up the reviled invasive species and hopes customers will bite

A bony fish long deemed the ‘bottom of the barrel’ will appear in sandwiches and on menus under the new name “Copi.”

Asian carp dressed up fancy
Illinois is trying to dress up the Asian carp, starting with a new name. Andjela Padejski / WBEZ
Asian carp dressed up fancy
Illinois is trying to dress up the Asian carp, starting with a new name. Andjela Padejski / WBEZ

Don’t call it a carp: Illinois dresses up the reviled invasive species and hopes customers will bite

A bony fish long deemed the ‘bottom of the barrel’ will appear in sandwiches and on menus under the new name “Copi.”

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Illinois, meet copi, formerly known as the Asian carp.

The state has tried almost everything to prevent Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes, from elaborate electric barriers to trapping them. Now vexed state and regional officials are trying another lifeline: rebranding the pest, in the hopes that human appetites and a propensity for overfishing will help them win the battle.

On Wednesday, officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and its partners unveiled the new name and a new lexicon, calling a fish that was once dubbed “bottom of the barrel” such blandishments as “nice and fresh” and “takes well to seasoning.” Working in cahoots with federal partners, they enlisted notable city chef Brian Jupiter, owner of Ina Mae Tavern and Frontier Chicago, to talk to reporters about potential dishes and how to combat the bony Y-shaped skeleton that has previously daunted even experienced cooks.

In doing so, they are taking a page from a classic marketing playbook, said Ron Culp, a DePaul University public relations professor. But to work, people must buy into the concept over time — and the product must be good, Culp said.

Asian carp
Two Asian carp are displayed Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing on preventing the induction of the carp, a aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes. The Asian carp, which can grow up to 100 pounds, were caught in Havana, Ill. Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press

The carp’s ugliness isn’t necessarily a problem, he said. “When you actually look at a lot of other fish that are popular, they don’t look too appealing either,” Culp said.

He pointed out examples of other fish that have gone through similar rebranding efforts, including orange roughie — which used to be called slimehead — and Chilean sea bass, which used to be called the Patagonian toothfish. As with orange roughie and Chilean sea bass, copi will need to be expertly prepared and packaged for it to take off, and organizers behind the effort shouldn’t expect immediate results, Culp said.

He said a food rebranding effort such as this one needs market research and taste-testing ahead of time, as well as patience for people who will continue to call copi “Asian carp.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Culp said. “There’s gonna be a lot of curiosity, but it’s going to take awhile for the old name to drift away.”

Nick Adam, a principal at Span Studio, the firm that helped the state put the rebranding effort together, said more than 350 Illinoisans participated in surveys, interviews and focus groups about copi. More than 100 name options were tested with consumers, food professionals and marine biologists.

Central to Illinois’ efforts are chefs and fish markets working to put copi out there and encourage people to try it.

Jupiter, a chef who won an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped earlier this year, is one of them.

The bones are still a challenge with copi, but Jupiter said the fish is a tasty option without an overly-strong flavor.

“You’re not going to offend anyone with the flavor profile,” Jupiter said. “It takes well to seasoning. I think once people give it a chance, they’ll really like it.”

The award-winning chef said he has created fish dishes with copi, “basically messing around with it right now.” Those experiments have included using the fish as a binding ingredient in crab cakes, blackening it for a po’ boy sandwich and smoking and brining it.

po' boy sandwich made with copi
A po’ boy sandwich featuring copi, created by Chicago Chef Brian Jupiter. Alex Garcia / Illinois Department of Natural Resources

The state is also touting places customers can pick up copi and try recipes on their own. Dirk and Terry Fucik of Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop in Lincoln Park have been sampling and selling carp — er, copi — burgers, meatballs and more for 10 years. Copi is available at the shop raw or prepared.

Long frustrated by the invasive species that gobbles up everything in its path, state officials have been trying to stoke interest among Illinoisans in eating invasive carp for years.

Back in 2020, several Chicago restaurants gave away free carp burgers, tacos and other dishes through the Asian Carp Challenge, which sought to get at least 1,000 people to try the fish for the first time — and hopefully start to break the stigma.

While it may seem counterintuitive to try to rebrand an invasive species as appetizing, Kevin Irons, program director for aquatic nuisance species and aquaculture at the state’s department of natural resources, said efforts to get rid of the fish and use them as a food source have the same goal: to lower the population.

“There’s a need for all kinds of management tools,” Irons said. “There’s no way to eradicate them at this point, but humans have a long history of being able to overfish.”

Lowering the population of the fish is important because of its ability to destroy ecosystems.

Asian carp were imported to U.S. fish farms in the 1970s to control algae. After flooding allowed the carp to escape from those farms, they ate much of the plankton and algae native species also rely on for food, harming the ecosystem. The carp now make up more than 97% of the biomass in some parts of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Other efforts to lower the population haven’t been set aside in favor of the new campaign.

Earlier this year, the Brandon Road Project in Joliet received $225 million through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the invasive carp from reaching the Great Lakes. Billed as “the last line of defense” against the fish, the project’s goal is to prevent the carp from moving further north.

Multiple electric barriers and 14 miles of fencing have also been installed throughout the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, Irons said.

The copi that do make it past those barriers just might find themselves in a burger.

Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.