Freshwater "Asian carp" is getting rebranded in a push to have it appear on more menus — and keep it out of the Great Lakes.
Advertisement
A bighead carp
Credit: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Even those of us who slept through freshman English know that line from the second act of Romeo and Juliet, where the moody Capulet teen decides that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet was trying to convince herself that her situation might turn out alright if Romeo weren't a Montague, because it's not the name that defines what a person or a thing actually is. 

You don't necessarily think of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DOR) as being Shakespearian, but they're doing their own version of that "a rose by any other name" thing with an invasive freshwater fish. In February 2021, the Department announced that it would be proposing a new name for Asian carp, the name used interchangeably for the bighead, black, grass, and silver carp, in order to make it sound more palatable to diners and supermarket shoppers. That big reveal was postponed until this week, when the Department finally let everyone know that Asian carp would now be known as… Copi. 

"Copi is a great name: Short, crisp and easy to say. What diner won't be intrigued when they read Copi tacos or Copi burgers on a menu?" Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Colleen Callahan said in a statement. "It's a tasty fish that's easy to work with in the kitchen and it plates beautifully. Every time we've offered samples during the Illinois State Fair, people have walked away floored by how delicious it is."

The name was derived from the word "copious," which is definitely an adjective that could be used to describe these fish. According to the Illinois DOR, anywhere between 20 million to 50 million pounds of Copi could be caught in the Illinois River alone every single year. 

Delivered fish
Credit: Alex Garcia

Those numbers are part of the push to make carp... er... Copi seem more palatable, and to reduce their numbers by encouraging people to eat up. The fish were originally imported into the U.S. in the 1970s because they could both eat the algae from wastewater treatment plants and clean up catfish ponds. But they eventually found ways to swim out of those environments and into the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, and both state and federal officials have been doing everything they can to prevent them from making their way into the Great Lakes. 

John Goss, a former White House invasive carp advisor (no, really), said that eating Copi is "one of the easiest things that people can do" to protect the Great Lakes from these invasive fish. That has previously been a tough sell — and it seems to have been connected to their now-former name, and to the misconception that carp are somehow "dirty" fish.

As a way of fighting that stigma, nine chefs in Illinois, Tennessee, and Arizona have recently committed to adding Copi to their menus, and 11 distributors, manufacturers, and processors — some of them nationwide — will be selling the fish to both restaurants and retailers.

Asian carp
Asian carp
Left: Credit: Alex Garcia
Right: Credit: Alex Garcia

"Copi is more savory than tilapia, cleaner tasting than catfish, and firmer than cod," Brian Jupiter, a former Chopped champion and chef at Chicago's Ina Mae Tavern said. "It's the perfect canvas for creativity — pan fried, steamed, broiled, baked, roasted or grilled. Copi can be ground for burgers, fish cakes, dumplings and tacos."

In addition, Illinois state officials will apply to formally change the name of the fish with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later this year. Until then, retail packaging will have both "Carp" and "Copi" on the labels.