Good enough to eat? This state is hoping to revamp Asian carp’s image

silver carp on a chopping board with herbs asian carp Photo by Mironov Vladimir/Shutterstock

Asian carp are getting a new name—but only in the state of Illinois. Last month, Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources announced that it was changing the name Asian carp to copi (a play on copious for their abundant numbers).

The rebrand is an attempt to dismiss long-held misconceptions about Asian carp and to reintroduce the fish as a delicious meal option. “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,” said Illinois Department of Natural Resources director Colleen Callahan, in a statement.

Asian carp are often mixed up with common carp, a bottom feeder with a mucky taste. Asian carp are top-feeder, white fish that are high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, rich with protein, and low in mercury.

large common carp being held by angler
The common carp is often confused with the family of Asian carp. They are bottom feeders and unlike silver carp have barbels. Photo by malgosia janicka/Shutterstock

“Copi is more savoury than tilapia, cleaner tasting than catfish, and firmer than cod,” said chef Brian Jupiter of Chicago’s Ina Mae Tavern, in a statement. “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.”

Since the name change, 21 Illinois chefs and retailers have committed to adding Asian carp to their menus. Copi has yet to be made official, but Illinois plans to apply to formally change the name with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year.

By revamping Asian carp as a consumer-friendly option, Illinois is hoping to reduce the species’ population within the state. Asian carp are an invasive species brought to North America from Asia in the 1960s and 70s. The fish have taken over U.S. waterways, decimating native species. Asian carp have replaced all native species in certain sections of the Mississippi River and make up more than 50 per cent of the fish, by weight, in sections of the Illinois River.

Asian carp is actually a catchall term for four types of fish: the silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, and black carp. These four species reproduce rapidly, eat up to 20 per cent of their body weight in plankton each day, and can weigh up to 40 kilograms, reaching a metre in length.

They have yet to become established in Ontario waters thanks to both the U.S. and Canadian governments implementing programs to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes. If they were to become established in the Great Lakes, the carp would pose a threat to the $7 billion-a-year commercial fishing industry and $16 billion-a-year tourism industry.

But not everyone is supportive of the Illinois name change. In an email, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) said that while increasing the fishes’ popularity could contribute to reducing the population, there is concern that creating a viable and desirable market for an invasive species will encourage individuals to introduce this species elsewhere. “Something we obviously do not want to happen.”

OFAH said it couldn’t speculate on whether the Ontario government would ever change the Asian carp name to copi, but, “if a name change [did] occur in Ontario and Canada…it would be guided by science as well as a desire to prevent any possible introduction of these species into our waters.”

Under Canada’s Federal Fisheries Act and Ontario’s Invasive Species Act, live possession of Asian carps is prohibited, unless dead and gutted.

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