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Asian Carp or Copi? Pushing Back Invasive Fish With a Rebrand

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Maya Reter
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Dirk Fucik grills up fish in front of his Chicago shop to entice customers into trying a free sample of his carp in 2021. Fucik has been one of the faces of the Illinois DNR’s rebranding campaign, as one of the few shops that’s consistently sold the fish years before the current effort started.

Asian carp are some of the most invasive fish threatening the waterways of the Great Lakes. In the last 30 years, carp have completely transformed the ecosystem in parts of the Illinois River, which connects to Lake Michigan. If the carp break through into the Great Lakes, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Experts have tried to block their approach through fishing competitions, electric fences, and other strategies, but now they’re switching gears.

There isn’t a large market for carp in the United States because many people think it’s a gross, bottom-feeding fish. So, in June, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced its rebrand for the invasive carp hoping that “Copi” will catch on as the new name for the fish.

Credits:
Hosts: Morgan Springer, Dan Wanschura
Producer: Maya Reter
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Dan Wanschura
Music: Blue Dot Sessions and Robbie Schaefer

Transcript:
MORGAN SPRINGER, HOST: Dan, what do you know about Asian carp?

DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: When I hear Asian carp, I think of the Mississippi River. And like, you'd never want to fish in the Mississippi River, or if you did, you wouldn't want to eat the fish just because it's kind of a dirty river, at least down by the cities. And what comes to mind for me is sort of like this image of these big, dirty carp.

MAYA RETER, BYLINE: Yeah. I also grew up thinking it was a dirty fish because I also grew up near the Mississippi River and also near the Illinois River, which is one of the hearts of the carp problem, and we were always hearing how gross and disgusting these fish were. It was even to the point where there was a song we would sing about just how gross carp are.

SPRINGER: Okay. We need to hear this song, Maya.

(laughter) 

RETER: Okay. So, the song goes: (music up, sings) A carp is a fish that will eat anything just as long as that thing is edible. It will even eat things such as dirt, mud, and trash, and it thinks that these things taste incredible.

And then it keeps going.

(laughter) 

SPRINGER: Yeah, is there a chorus or something?

RETER: It just goes: (sings) There's a carp in the tub, there's a carp in the tub, there's a carp in the tub…

(laughter)  (music continues) 

MUSIC: and everybody's dirty. There's a carp in the tub, there's a carp in the tub, so nobody's taking a bath!

RETER: Fun as a kid!

WANSCHURA: That is incredible, but who, who would want to eat carp with that in mind? Like, all of that?

RETER: Exactly. That's why the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have been working since 2020 to come up with a new name, and they recently launched a whole campaign promoting it.

WANSCHURA AND SPRINGER: (singing the theme) Bum bum bum, bum bum bum bum

(music up)

WANSCHURA: I'm Dan Wanschura.

SPRINGER: And I'm Morgan Springer. And this is Points North: a show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the upper great lakes. With us today is independent producer Maya Reter. So Maya, where does this story start?

RETER: So, it's pretty hard to tell the story of Asian carp in Illinois without Dirk Fucik. Dirk's been involved with marketing the fish since around 2010, and he owns Dirk's Fish, which is a little shop on the north side of Chicago, tucked in a strip mall near the highway.

DIRK FUCIK: Hey, what's up? How are you doing today John? What's going on?

JOHN: Doing well.

FUCIK: What can I get you, an octopus taco?

JOHN: No.

FUCIK: What do you mean no?

JOHN: (laughs) No, no, don't even try it.

FUCIK: (laughs) How about, how about a regular taco?

RETER: That's Dirk talking with one of his regulars, a local postman who always makes sure to stop by on his route. The shop is pretty unassuming from the outside, but when you walk in, it feels like you're inside someone's decked out fishing cabin Up North it's cozy, bustling with activity, and packed full of anything you could want, when you think of fish.

RETER: (from inside the shop) In the fridges, we have at least five different kinds of fish roe, tuna chili, conch chowder, this whole tank of very friendly looking lobsters.

RETER: And of course, Asian carp, he usually sells it as carp bolognaise for spaghetti or carp patties for burgers or tacos.

Every Saturday year-round, Dirk hauls his grill into the parking lot and grills up free samples, usually including carp as an incentive to get people to try the fish. Because, like I said, people think carp is gross. But the thing is, this is based on European carp, which is the original carp that came to the area and gave the fish its bad reputation.

Dirk explained to me that Asian carp is different.

FUCIK: People kind of frown on the word carp because they think of the bottom feeding carp, and it's, I don't wanna say fishy, but it's not as tasty as this. This is a plankton feeder that feeds on midwater plankton, and so it's a clean white fleshed fish and really nice.

RETER: So the Illinois DNR thinks that the name is holding people back from eating carp, and if they just change it, people will stop thinking about Asian carp as a dirty bottom feeding, garbage eating fish and will want to eat it.

SPRINGER: It's like, okay, that's great, but who cares? Like why do they care if people eat it or not? There's plenty of fish that we eat and plenty that exists that we don't eat and we don't care about.

RETER: Yeah, so, the reason they care about whether we eat Asian carp or not, is that Asian carp is very bad for the ecosystem, very bad for the Illinois ecosystem specifically. It was brought over in the seventies to eat excess plankton in catfish ponds and such, but it quickly escaped and got into the rivers, and it turns out, the Illinois River and other great lakes, tributaries like it, are perfect environments for these fish to thrive, and very quickly, the population kind of exploded.

WANSCHURA: Just how much fish are we talking about here, Maya?

RETER: Well, according to Kevin Irons at the Illinois DNR, no one really knows for sure, but they have some educated guesses, specifically for the Illinois River.

KEVIN IRONS: It's very hard to get those numbers. It's easy to say a lot. 70% or more of the total weight of fish in a stretch of river can be Asian carp.

SPRINGER: So he’s not saying 70% of the fish are Asian carp, but 70% of the pounds of fish are carp.

RETER: Right. They're big fish, and it's completely uprooted the food chain of these rivers . And the rivers look totally different than they did 30, 40 years ago. So, the Illinois DNR sees what a chokehold these fish have on the Illinois River and they want to make sure it doesn't find a home in the great lakes and wreak havoc.

IRONS: Thankfully, we have not seen 'em in Lake Michigan, but we're doing a lot of things in the last 10 years to make sure that leading edge of the population in the Illinois River is very low.

RETER: Those things include a new lock and dam system, sonic barriers to repel the fish, just hauling out as much fish as possible from the river, and now, changing the name.

WANSCHURA: So the plan is basically, you know, let's get people to like this fish so that they eat a ton of it so that it's not exploding and can't get anywhere?

RETER: I mean, yeah! For a while they were using this campaign slogan. “If you can't beat it, eat it!”

SPRINGER: Okay. That's gotta ring to it.

RETER: Yeah, it turns out no one can really population control better than humans. If there's a human market for something we will over fish it, right?

WANSCHURA: Wait a minute. I mean, we've known this fish as Asian carp for years, and now they've just decided to call it something else? I didn't know you could just like, rename a fish. How, how does that work?

RETER: Well, you can't just rename it anything and hope that people will come. Like in Kentucky, there were some people looking at trying to market Asian carp to create new commerce, new industry in the area. And as they were kind of messing around and trying it and cooking it in different ways, they realized it tasted a bit like tuna. So amongst themselves, they started to jokingly call it, Kentucky tuna, but that kind…

WANSCHURA: Wait, wait. What? (laughs) Kentucky Tuna?

RETER: Yeah, (laughs) sorry, I kind of blew past that. Um, yes, Kentucky tuna.

SPRINGER: Which is an entirely different fish and species.

RETER: Yeah, but the idea is that like: it's a fish in Kentucky, tastes like tuna. So, Kentucky tuna.

WANSCHURA: I'm gonna go out on a limb Maya and say that didn't go over well, once that nickname caught up?

RETER: No, no, it did not. So, they weren't trying to market it specifically as Kentucky tuna, but word get out that it was casually being called that when the Colbert report mocked it on their show back in 2010,

THE COLBERT REPORT: Kentucky tuna is, I think, a brilliant name. If I see Asian carp on a menu, I think disgusting pest. But when I see Kentucky tuna, I think all the sophistication of sushi raised in an above ground pool.

RETER: Quickly, the researchers found themselves threatened with a lawsuit. This national group called the better seafood board basically said, Hey, you can't just call anything, anything. This isn't tuna, you can't call it tuna.

So when looking into marketing a new name, you have to be careful in some senses, because you can't just say, “I think that salmon sells well, and the fish is from Illinois, so let's call it the Illinois River salmon.” That's not gonna fly.

But there's this other example with Chilean sea bass, where the fish was renamed using the right avenues and it actually made a huge difference.

Chilean sea bass is a pricey white fish. You may have seen it on the menu at fancy restaurants. But it was officially known as the Patagonian toothfish until the name was changed in 1994.

SPRINGER: Ugh, toothfish. That does not sound like something I wanna eat.

RETER: Yeah. And the public agreed, but after the rename, all of a sudden Chilean sea bass was the hot new thing in high demand. Now, almost 30 years later, most people don't even know Chilean sea bass was once Patagonian toothfish.

SPRINGER: I mean, let's just pause there for a second. That's incredible.

RETER: Yeah, it's, it's a really impressive metric and one that obviously they want to see if they can recreate with Asian carp. So fast forward to now in this debate, here's Dirk Fucik from the fish shop again.

FUCIK: Cause when they started doing this whole name thing, they had a whole list of names, like sweet lips and all these, you know, just strange things, you know, it's like, I don't like any of them. (laughs)

SPRINGER: (laughs) I mean, these names are just insane.

WANSCHURA: So much could go wrong there!

RETER: Sweet lips is, uh, definitely a choice, perhaps not what I would make. But Dirk's actually not that crazy about changing the name of any fish.

FUCIK: You know, cause there's a lot of substitution in the fish business, and I, you know, we don't just do that. I want you to know that you're buying Patagonian toothfish and that's what you're eating, even if you wanna call it Chilean sea bass.

RETER: It's not that he doesn't support the campaign to get more people to eat Asian carp; he's really excited about it. He just doesn't like the idea of customers not understanding the fish they're buying.

SPRINGER: Okay, So now that you've told us that sweet lips may have been one of the options, I think we really need to get to it. If you haven't heard the new name, it is… and Maya, I'm gonna leave it to you, you take it.

RETER: Asian carp is now on the shelves being sold as Copi.

SPRINGER: I like it, Oh, so cute!

WANSCHURA: Copi… I don't know about that guys. I don't know how that's hitting me.

SPRINGER: Oh, the skeptic arrives.

WANSCHURA: How's it spelled?

RETER: Copi is C O P I.

SPRINGER: Even cuter.

WANSCHURA: Copi. Hmm. Okay.

RETER: I think it's kind of charming! It's got a nice ring to it, and on their official logo, they make the O look like a little fish, and I'm a sucker for cute graphic.

SPRINGER: Yep. Cute graphic all the way. And, I think I like that it's short. It's just like a sweet little nugget. Copi!

WANSCHURA: Hmm. I'm gonna have to let this one settle I think before I make up my mind. But they made sure to get carp completely outta the picture. That's for sure.

RETER: Yes and no. The DNR has been very careful to explain that this is a rebranding, not an official renaming. Remember we talked about before: you can get into some really dicey waters when trying to actually rename fish. So for now, this is just a rebrand.

WANSCHURA: Wait, what? What does that mean exactly? Rebranding versus renaming, what's the practical difference?

RETER: Yeah. So any packaging selling the fish as Copi has to also have carp on there somewhere so they're not misleading the public. Once they can show that the public has accepted this new name for the fish, the DNR can push for the FDA to recognize this new name.

SPRINGER: Okay, so rebrand is Copi, but why Copi? Maybe the reason will swing Dan over in our direction.

RETER: So, COPI is a play on words! Copi is short for copious. As in we have way, way too many of these fish, please just eat them!

WANSCHURA: Oh, interesting, wow.

SPRINGER: Dan, you like that?

WANSCHURA: Honestly that's better. Anybody who knows me closely knows that I like a formal name that can be also shortened to a nickname, so that fits the bill, I guess. (laughs)

SPRINGER: Right. And copious, because why?

RETER: The whole idea is that it plays to the sustainability angle of the fish. They hope that marketing this as a sustainable fish will help market toward a more environmentally conscious crowd.

WANSCHURA: So, Maya, let me ask you, do you think Copi might actually have a chance of catching on?

RETER: Maybe? Dirk's certainly been putting the legwork at his shop even before the name changed when it was still carp.

YOUNG BOY: Hi!

FUCIK: Hi! You want some fish?

YOUNG BOY: (unintelligible)

FUCIK: You love fish. You want some? I got a sample if you want some.

RETER: The smell of the grill with his free samples easily draws in anyone walking by. Alongside the expected shrimp and salmon, Dirk grills up his special ground carp burgers and tacos while serving up pasta with the ground carp bolognese.

Even with this impressive spread of samples in front of them. Plenty of folks come up to the table with skeptical looks when they hear carp like Tyler Deering from Detroit who tried it last summer,

TYLER DEERING: I'm from Michigan, and we weren't very pleased about it being in the lakes. So yeah, it's not supposed to be a good fish.

RETER: But then he tried the carp tacos…

DEERING: I would eat and order three of these right now. That's delicious.

RETER: And the other carp dishes get the same praise.

ASIA WALKER: Super good, delicious, flavorful.

GRACE GILBERTSON: Not off putting at all, not fishy or oily.

ELLIOT ROUTHIER: Well, we've just like, moved here, and I really like this fish. So like, we just tried it, and I think we should come here more often.

RETER: That was Asia Walker, Grace Gilbertson, and Elliot Routhier.

WANSCHURA: Maya, you didn't go to Chicago and walk away without trying this right?

RETER: No, I had to try it. It smelled incredible, and I was standing out there all day. There's no way I was gonna leave without giving it a try.

RETER: (from the shop) These tacos are, it's the burgers that are kind of just like crushed up, with a slice of avocado and some pico de gallo on top and a nice toasted tortilla. It looks incredible.

Oh my gosh, that’s so good.

WANSCHURA: What'd you think?

RETER: I thought it was juicy and flavorful. And maybe that was because the fish is mild, well seasoned and grilled by an expert. Or maybe it's just good.

I don't know if Copi will catch on and if the public will accept this new fish into their diet. But whatever it's called, I'll eat it.