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Illinois believes a rebrand will make Asian carp more palatable for diners

Asian carp
John Flesher/AP
FILE - In this June 13, 2012 file photo, an Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jump from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill., during a study on the fish's population. Bowhunters are being invited to shoot as many Asian carp as possible in a competition planned for July 2014 on the Illinois River in central Illinois. Organizers are planning the first Flying Fish Festival and Bowfishing Tournament for July 11 and 12, with a sporting goods store as lead sponsor. (AP Photo/John Flesher, File)

Is bad branding what's keeping Asian carp from meeting its full potential as a food source? The Illinois Department of Natural Resources believes a new name could net the invasive fish a new place on thousands of dinner tables.

The Asian carp's new name is "copi" (pronounced CO-pee). It's a play on the word "copious," referring to the overwhelming populations present in downstate watersheds, including the Peoria area.

That name was chosen from among hundreds after extensive marketing research among consumers, scientists, and fish and food industry professionals.

"Asian carp" is a blanket term used for four invasive carp species first introduced into the U.S. in the 1960s. By the 1990s, the pervasive fish became prolific throughout the Illinois River, choking out native species.

Today, the fish species make up some 70% of the Illinois River's total biomass. Kevin Irons is the IDNR's aquatic nuisance species program manager. He said by creating a human consumption market for the fish, that ratio could be reduced to some 10 to 15%.

That's important as the IDNR and other agencies seek to prevent invasive copi from reaching the Great Lakes. The current line of defense is located at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam along the Des Plaines River in Joliet.

"If they get into Lake Michigan, it would really be devastating," said Beverly Kim, a Chicago chef and restaurateur, in IDNR's pre-produced name unveil video.

The ecological problems posed by the invasive carp are evident. But Americans are loathe to eat them. That undercuts the economic incentives for efforts to promote more fishing of the species.

"The problem is too many copi in our Midwest waters crowding out our native fish for food. So we need to eat copi so our native fish can rebound," said John Goss, the former federal invasive carp advisor.

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A chef grills up "copi burgers."

Nick Adam, a design principal with Chicago-based communications firm Span, said while the carp are a locally sourced, top-feeding fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, "the fish has a name-based perception issue." That prevents those positive attributes from shining through, he said.

"The great news is this isn't a unique problem. This has been solved many times before through renaming, and we know that renaming food works," Adam said, citing other "rebranded" fish species like orange roughy (formerly known as "slimehead") and Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish).

The U.S. EPA's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is putting $600,000 behind the IDNR-led rebranding effort through 2024.

"It's the starting point," said Irons. "We're going to support this effort to 2024, joining a collaborative of industries and fish eaters and restaurants and chefs. So it'll live beyond that."

The new campaign to market the "copi" name is coupled with a sales effort, said marketing executive Melissa Harris. Twenty-one chefs and retailers across Illinois are rolling out copi products, including copi sliders now available at Peoria's Kelleher's Irish Pub.

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The new logo for Illinois' "copi" effort to rebrand and market the invasive Asian carp species.

Restaurants can receive free samples of copi to test dishes or experiment, and provide customer samples.

Chefs and grocers can purchase copi from processors, manufacturers and distributors, including Sorce Freshwater in East Peoria and Kencor Ethnic Foods in Canton. National distributors like Gordon Food Service are also on-board.

Not everyone believes the IDNR-led effort is the best solution to the invasive carp problem, however. Robert Hirschfeld is the senior water policy specialist at the Champaign-based environmental group Prairie Rivers Network.

"Resources, time, and money that are spent toward rebranding could better go towards Illinois DNR fulfilling its mission to protect the natural resources of the state, and healing the damage to Illinois rivers over the course of decades," Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld argued poor river management decisions prioritizing agriculture and shipping damaged the ecosystem. He said reducing pollutants in rivers and restoring native wetland habitats would be a better use of resources than the rebranding effort, which he panned as an attempt to "outsource the carp problem to the private sector."

Hirschfeld believes the plan is also too focused on keeping the invasive carp out of the Great Lakes, and not enough on restoring the Illinois rivers already damaged by their proliferation. Lake Michigan supports a $7 billion commercial fishing industry and $16 billion tourism industry.

Still, the state of Illinois is banking on a successful rebrand creating economic and environmental benefits.

"It is clear that although we cannot likely eradicate these species, harvest can prevent the spread and is one of the strongest tools we have to reduce populations of Asian carp in areas where they are dominate," said Irons. "Harvest can significantly lower densities and populations of these carp."

Illinois officials plan to formally apply for a name change with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year.

The IDNR has launched a new website to market the new copi name.

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