TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan ( Associated Press) – You’re in the mood for fish and your waiter offers a dish of invasive carp. Uh-huh, you could say. How about a fried kopi fresh from the Mississippi River?
Here’s the catch: it’s the same thing.
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Illinois and partner organizations launched a market-tested campaign on Wednesday to rename four species formerly known as Asian carp as “copi” in the hope that the new label will make them more appealing to US consumers.
Making carp a popular item on home and restaurant menus is one way authorities hope to curb a decade-long invasion that threatens native fish, mussels and aquatic plants in the Mississippi and other Midwest rivers, as well as the Great Lakes.
“The name ‘carp’ is so harsh that people don’t even want to try it,” said Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s healthy, clean, and really damn tasty.”
The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is funding a five-year, $600,000 project to rebrand carp and make it widely available. More than two dozen distributors, processors, restaurants and retailers have signed up. Most are in Illinois, but some ship to multiple states or across the country.
“This could be a huge breakthrough,” said John Goss, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to stop the carp invasion and worked on the renaming project. “The next couple of years are very important for building trust and acceptance.”
Span, a Chicago-based communications design company, came up with “copi”. This shorthand for “abundant” is a reference to the booming population of pied, white, grass and black carp in the central United States.
Introduced from Asia in the 1960s and 70s to eat seaweed from the sewer lagoons and fish farms of the Deep South, they escaped to the Mississippi. They have infested much of the river and many tributaries, crowding out native species such as perch and crappie.
Regulators have spent more than $600 million to keep them out of the Great Lakes and waters like Barkley Lake on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Strategies include installing electrical barriers at entry points and hiring crews to fish for products such as fertilizer and pet food. Other technologies, such as underwater silencers and air bubble curtains, are under development.
It would be better if more people ate critters that are popular in other countries. Officials estimate that up to 50 million pounds (22.7 million kilograms) can be caught in the Illinois River between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan each year. More are available from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.
“Government subsidies alone will not end this war,” Goss said. “Our main hope may be the market demand for mines from the private sector.”
In the US, carp are best known for feeding on the bottom with a cloudy taste. Bighead carp and silver carp, the main targets of the copi campaign, live higher up in the water column, feeding on algae and plankton. The grass carp feeds on aquatic plants, while the black carp prefers mussels and snails. All four products are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury and other contaminants, Irons says.
“It has a nice mild taste… a nice surprise that should help fix its reputation,” said Brian Jupiter, a Chicago-based chef who plans to offer a kopi-po-boi sandwich at his Ina Mae Tavern. The fish can be adapted to numerous cuisines, including Cajun, Asian and Latin, he says.
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However, it can be hard to sell, especially as the fish’s infamous boneiness makes it difficult to produce the fillets that many visitors expect, Jupiter added. Some of the best recipes can use chopped or ground kopi, he says.
Dirk and Terry Fucik, owners of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Chicago, said they have been selling carp burgers for years and offering carp meatballs, tacos and other dishes.
According to Irons, Span’s researchers looked at a variety of names, including “butterfin,” before settling on “mine.” According to him, it sounded catchy, a little exotic and even fun.
Span has conducted surveys, interviews and focus group meetings with more than 350 Illinois residents, design chief Nick Adam said.
The next step is getting approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which says “made-up or fancy” fish labels can be used as long as they are not misleading or confusing. A familiar example is “slimehead”, which became a hit after its market moniker was changed to “orange snapper”.
Illinois also plans to trademark “copi,” which will allow industry groups to develop quality control procedures, Irons said.
Other regulators and scientific groups have their own policies and may not adopt them.
The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and the American Fisheries Society have a committee that lists the names of fish, including scientific names in Latin and long-established common names. The group has never used “Asian carp” as a general term for an invasive species.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to stick with “invasive carp” and four separate names as its focus is on managing and controlling their distribution, said Charlie Wooley, director of the Midwest. So will the Regional Invasive Carp Coordinating Committee, which is made up of numerous federal, state, local and Canadian provincial agencies.
They dropped “Asian carp” last year due to concerns about anti-Asian bigotry.