I think that’s a huge part of chowing down on Copi. You’re an eco-warrior, someone making a difference, eating one invasive fish at a time.
By S. Nicole Lane
Weighing up to a hundred pounds, this leviathan devours all plankton in sight and consumes forty percent of its own body weight as it swims the freshwaters of the Illinois River. This beast isn’t one of the innumerable legends of mythic monsters swimming in the Great Lakes, from Saginaw Bay Saggy to Bessie, “The Loch Ness Monster of Lake Erie” – it’s just a fish, albeit an invasive one.
And there isn’t just one of these creatures, there are four different kinds—bighead, silver, black, and grass—and there are millions of them proliferating throughout the waters in the U.S., moving thick and quick towards the Great Lakes region.
Asian carp were first introduced to the United States in the 1970s when they were first brought to Arkansas from China to control nuisance algal blooms in wastewater treatment plants. However, the determined species escaped their confinement and fled for the Mississippi River basin, where they now make up 90 percent of some of the backwaters found along the river.
On the Illinois River, the silver and bighead carp are thicker than in Yangtze, the Yellow, or any other river in China. In fact, it’s the largest population of Asian carp found in the world. From the Illinois River, if the carp travel through Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, they’ll ultimately arrive at Lake Michigan, whereas an invasive species they have the potential to irrevocably harm the current ecosystem.
While the U.S. has seen a laundry list of invasive species throughout history, the Asian carp will create irreversible damage in a short amount of time if they enter the Great Lakes, threatening both the environment and the commercial fishing industry.
In 2022, a 22-pound invasive carp was found in Lake Calumet, Illinois just seven miles from Lake Michigan and well past the Chicago Area Waterway System, partially intended as a barrier for the carp. This is the third carp found to pass through the electric barrier.
In early 2022, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a $225.8 million plan to finish the Brandon Road Lock and Dam which will be the last great barrier for the invasive carp and their journey toward the Great Lakes Basin. But by November 2022, there was an announcement that full federal funding is still needed.
What the federal government has yet to solve may be helped by hungry eaters. In June 2022, Illinois officials rebranded the Asian carp as “Copi,”—short for “copious”— to encourage fishermen and the public to fight back on their own by putting this invasive species on the dinner table. The rationale was that recategorizing the Copi as not just a pest, but rather a delicacy, might help to restore the fishing industry while saving waterways. As a result, over five million pounds of Copi are harvested from commercial fishing in the Illinois River every year.
A variety of factors are involved in the decline of the Great Lakes fishing industry. Partially the industry’s success was responsible for its decline, as the late 1800s and 1900s saw a boom that was so fruitful it wiped out much of the fish population (totally eliminating the blue pike, lake trout, and Atlantic salmon) by the 1950s.
Other invasive species like quagga and zebra mussels, which were first introduced in the 1980s by ballast water discharge from ships traveling from eastern Europe, are another threat already living in the Great Lakes. When quagga and zebra mussels reduce phytoplankton and small zooplankton, they eradicate the amount that many native species need to survive. As a result, fish populations dwindled.
Dr. Edward S. Rutherford, a research fishery biologist at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan explained, “There aren’t many young commercial fishers working these days—they can earn more and work less doing something else. There has to be an incentive for more fishers to get into the business, which should be the market driver—hence the search for rebranding the fish as Copi, and getting the word out on how delicious it is.”
Fishing for Copi could support local fisheries and small businesses as well as the seven billion dollar sport fishing which still endures. Brian Schoenung, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager and Aquaculture Manager of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and part of the team leading the Copi initiative said, “The Copi rebranding is an effort to differentiate these fish from common carp. These fish are very mild and light flavored and are also top feeders, feeding primarily on zooplankton, making them very nutritious and very low in contaminants,” he said.
The rebrand removes the name “carp,” which many people associate with bottom-feeders (although Copi are not bottom-feeders), and “Asian,” which is often interpreted as racially insensitive, especially at a time of heightened violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Rebranding isn’t uncommon when it comes to fish. Orange roughy was once called “slimehead,” Chilean sea bass was originally called “Patagonian toothfish,” and sea urchins were colloquially known as “Whore’s egg.”
“It is estimated that 30-50 million pounds of Copi could be harvested annually from the Illinois River alone,” said Schoenung. “Throw in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers and tributaries and you can quickly get a sense of the quantity of high quality nutritious protein available through the commercial harvest of these fish.”
He explained that various studies had pointed directly to the Great Lakes as being the tributaries for Copi. “Our focus and energy are on ensuring that does not happen,” he said.
However, we aren’t casting nets in the Great Lakes just yet. For now, fishermen are busy in the rivers surrounding the area. The target plan is to remove fish from the lower river, reducing the number of fish migrating to the upper level, and eventually into Lake Michigan. From 2022 to 2023, “the target removal is 3.77 million pounds through contracts with commercial fishers. The hope is that demand for Copi will grow and will attract more commercial fishers and provide more harvest,” said Rutherford.
Chicago-based chef, Jaren Zacher first heard about the invasive problems of Copi around 2010, when the threat of the fish traveling up the Mississippi River became a real concern. Immediately he started thinking up recipes and conceived of a new restaurant pop-up named Chả Cá Nuggs. “I was passionate about solving the problem that we had created and not letting our collective hubris continue to alter and affect the ecosystem of our waterways,” he said.
But Zacher knew the only way to get Copi on people’s plates was to start in the restaurant industry.
“It wasn’t until I was in Sydney, Australia where I staged with Josh Niland at Saint Peter for a day. His approach to using fish more holistically and seeing them for more than just their filets gave me a new lens to look at the difficulties of cooking Copi,” said Zacher.
He began to look at how carp was used in Eastern Europe, specifically in Ashkenazi Jewish cookery in which gelatinous gefilte fish is frequently on the menu. “I also looked at how these fish were used in their historic homes of South East Asia, Vietnam, and China specifically. I knew whole fish cookery would be one route but thought that presenting the fish in a fun and approachable format would be paramount to bring on the American public’s interest. So I landed on a bit of mimicry of a Chicago native, the McDonald’s nugget. I now had a fun approachable product that used the fish fully in a way that purveyors were processing the fish.”
And so, Chả Cá Nuggs was born.
Zacher said, “Most Americans are not acquainted with eating freshwater fish anymore and instead continue to eat farmed ocean fish and/or wild ocean fish threatened with overfishing.”
“The invasive carp species are considered a delicacy in China and other areas of Asia. I have tried all four species and find them to be delicious,” explained Rutherford.
In China, the bighead carp, called “hua lian,” in Mandarin has 8,000 years of history of being on the dinner table and symbolizing prosperity.
What then keeps Americans from eating this fish? Zacher has two ideas. To begin with, cooking a whole fish is expensive. “Due to the skeletal structure of all carp having intramuscular ‘y-bones,’ filet cuts are essentially impossible. This has long relegated them to a subset of American cookery, primarily within immigrant communities where whole fish cookery is still common practice,” he explained.
Secondly, Americans think that the Copi is a muddy, dirty, or poor-quality fish due to it being a freshwater fish. In fact, Copi is similar to whitefish, and the “fishy taste” is minimal—meaning it can be easily seasoned for those who aren’t typical seafood fans. Zacher said the rebrand helps “break out from the unfounded assumption of the quality and flavor of the fish.”
In short, carp has a bad reputation and in order to trick Americans into finding Copi digestible, it had to be rebranded.
Zacher isn’t the only one serving Copi on his menu. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded a five-year $600,000 project to make Copi available to distributors, processors, restaurants, and retailers. In Chicago alone these include Dirks Fish & Gourmet Shop, Chef Brian Jupiter’s New Orleans-inspired restaurant, Ina Mae Tavern, Calumet Fisheries on 95th St., and Chef Paul Virant’s first okonomiyaki restaurant in the Windy City, Gaijin all have Copi in their display case or on their menu.
The Copi rebrand adopted a catchphrase of “Eat well, do good.” Schoenung said, “By eating Copi, we can capitalize on an abundant and healthy protein source and also have a positive impact on the environment by reducing the numbers of these fish in our river systems.”
While at a pop-up at Kimski in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, I wait in line for my Chả Cá Nuggs. For $8, I bite into ten pieces of tempura-battered nuggets. It’s soft and flaky, and it’s definitely fish. But I love fish and I know the work and effort that goes into each of these nuggets, I love them even more. Since Copi is mild-flavored, I pick from a selection of sauces like sweet and sour, miso BBQ, and honey mustard and keep digging in.
By the end, I’m not sure if I’m confident to cook it myself but I’m ready to keep ordering it when I see it on the menu. I’m eating well and doing good. And I think that’s a huge part of chowing down on Copy. You’re an eco-warrior, someone making a difference, eating one invasive fish at a time.
It’s a simple “If we can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” mentality that in conjunction with the electric barriers could protect our freshwaters from an entire extermination of the ecosystems that make up the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet. The only obstacle? We need all hands (and palettes) on deck. Without proper public interest and enthusiasm, our time for doing good may be running out.
S. Nicole Lane is a Chicago-based freelancer and deputy editor of Giddy.