Rebranding carp as ‘copi’ a valiant effort, but will it take?
If you have logged more than a few years of fishing time on Lake Erie, you might well remember the splash made by the Ohio Sea Grant program more than 35 years ago when it introduced a more palatable name for freshwater drum, or “sheepshead.”
The new name was “Lake Erie silver bass,” and it came with a Sea Grant fact sheet on the familiar species and recipes on turning properly trimmed fillets into Poor Man’s Shrimp (served cold with cocktail sauce) and Poor Man’s Lobster (served hot with melted butter).
The moniker stuck – well, sort of. But it still is a hard sell for the dinner table to fleets of anglers spoiled by the incomparable fare presented by walleye and yellow perch. A pity, too, for the feisty-fight of a sheepshead, er, silver bass, puts the walleye to shame.
The foregoing comes to mind in the wake of last month’s announcement by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that it wants to rebrand four species of infamously pestiferous Asian carp – silver, bighead, grass, and black – as “copi.”
Short for “copious,” which certainly characterizes the four species plaguing the Illinois River and threatening expansion into the Great Lakes, copi are better on the plate than suggested by their seeming reputation and relationship to common carp. (Common carp, properly smoked, are pretty good, actually).
Copi, if you will, now compose some 70% of fish in the Mississippi River basin, and it is feared that their prolific reproductive capacity and prodigious appetites for plankton (especially bighead and silver) could displace valuable Great Lakes native species and introduced salmonids. The latter fisheries are worth $7 billion a year. Hence the hundreds of millions being spent to keep them out of Lake Michigan at Chicago, where a canal and locks connector system links the lake with the Illinois/Mississippi river system.
In any case, marketing and consuming more copi, while a good use of an un-natural resource, will not solve the problems the four species have caused since their introduction some 50 years ago – with government blessings – as vegetation controls in southern fish farms. Who knew the fish farms, often built near rivers, might flood and overflow and Asian carp escape to be pests in the wild? Duh. It has been one of many such “duhs” in the world of introducing nonnative species and subsequent unintended consquences, but this one has been a whopper.
The Illinois DNR even has launched a website called “choose copi” listing tasty facts about the fish, retailers, as well as cooking videos and recipes ranging from copi fish tacos to copi cakes. Some chefs in Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama have promised to experiment with recipes and add copi to their menus.
Food distributors promise to put copi fillets in blister packs and grocery cases in coming months. Illinois DNR even has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make the copi name official on commercial packaging.
I wish the effort well. And even promise to try eating some copi some time. But it says here that the swim to commercial success and significant consumption will be steeply upstream. The Lake Erie silver bass experience is all the evidence you need.