Copi in the spotlight at Illinois State Fair as fish's popularity as a food source increases
Copi, the Midwest waterways nuisance fish formerly known as Asian carp, is enjoying a surge in popularity as a human food source in the United States.
Don’t believe it? Just ask Brian Schoenung, an aquatic nuisance species expert for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Schoenung has tracked the habitat-destroying “silverfish” since well before IDNR’s June 2022 rebranding of Asian carp as “Copi,” which is short for “copious” and an adequate description of the invasive, habitat-destroying fish whose presence is threatening crucial food sources for sportfish in Midwestern waterways.
“(Before the rebranding) we had been at about 7 or 8 million pounds, annually, of invasive carp harvested from the Illinois River. We have seen that number jump to about 15 or 16 million pounds. We have had nearly a 10 million pound increase in the harvesting of these fish from the Illinois River since the rebranding,” Schoenung told WCBU Peoria Public Radio in an interview conducted at Conservation World inside the 2023 Illinois State Fairgrounds.
“Where we are really seeing (the increase) is in the number of places that are carrying it. Not only with restaurants that have it available, but also distributors. That’s the challenge; you can have the greatest fish in the world but, number one, you’ve got to increase customers’ awareness of it and interest in it. And you’ve got to have suppliers that have the stock available, and the distribution as well. Right now we are trying to grow in all three aspects,” he added.
The number of fish processing facilities in Illinois that can prepare Asian carp for consumption still needs to increase, according to Schoenung, as most existing processors are equipped to prepare them for use in commercial fish meal or fish oils.
“They’re kind of specialized,” he said of the processors who can turn raw Asian carp into a mince suitable for frying. “Right now, we have a couple of processors in Illinois that are focusing on the food aspect of Copi.”
The IDNR is currently operating an incentive program that pays commercial fishers on the Illinois River 10 cents per pound to capture and turn over Asian carp to processors in Illinois, such as Sorce Enterprises of East Peoria and Schafer Fisheries in Fulton. Through the Asian Carp Market Value Program (MVP), IDNR offers grant funding for current Asian carp processors and product-makers to support development of new markets and sales opportunities for Asian carp products. The intent is to assist the State of Illinois in meeting invasive species management goals by encouraging demand for Asian carp through business growth.
In addition to consuming river organisms and plankton that native sportfish rely on for survival, Asian carp can also present a physical danger to humans. Many viral videos exist of the fish leaping into boats with outboard motors that churn the waters, agitate the fish, and compel them to leap from the water-- sometimes coming into physical contact with boaters. Asian carp can grow to more than 40 pounds and 2 to 4 feet in length.
“The ‘carp’ moniker kind of has a negative connotation to it. Most folks, when they hear the word carp, they’re thinking of a very strong flavor and a bottom-feeding fish. It’s a turn-off for consumers,” said Schoenung. “But Copi strips make some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had; it’s very mild and very light. Copi is a very nutritious (food) choice and we’ve got millions and millions of pounds of this fish in the Illinois River alone, not to mention the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”
Schoenung said there are four species of carp: bighead, silver, black and grass. None are known for their great taste or easy preparation. However, “Copi (when processed) is crisp and light on the tongue,” according to Schoenung.
Copi fish nuggets, Copi rangoon and Copi empanadas were but a few of the items for sale at an IDNR-run Copi food stand located in Conservation World. The Flippin’ Fish Shack was operated by a Copi chef from Grafton, Illinois, which is located at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
“The idea is not to rename this fish from a scientific standpoint. It’s the processor-to-consumer (market) where we really want to see (Copi) take off,” said Schoenung.
The IDNR fish expert explained that Asian carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970s to control plankton in commercial fish ponds. During the Mississippi River flood of 1983 the carp escaped captivity and began reproducing in the wild, developing large populations. The fish eventually moved northward to Illinois, threatening the ecosystem of the Illinois River.
In recent years, the focus of conservation and natural resource officials has been on keeping the fish from reaching Lake Michigan. Promoting Asian carp and rebranding it as a human food source is just one method the IDNR and other states are utilizing to rid their waterways of the voracious carp.
“Copi is a very nutritious food source and it’s foolish of us not to capitalize on that and take advantage of it,” Schoenung said. “We’ve got millions of pounds of them to harvest.” Learn more about Copi as a food source at www.ChooseCopi.com.