A Fish By Any Other Name: Inside The Effort To Bring ‘Copi’ To Dinner

10:38 minutes

A man on a boat wearing a life jacket holds up a silvery fish about 2 feet long to the camera.
The face of a delicious newcomer to America’s restaurant scene. Credit: Ryan Hagerty, US Fish and Wildlife Service

People who live near freshwater rivers or lakes are likely familiar with Asian Carp. The fish are not native to the U.S., but over the last few decades their populations have exploded in waterways like the Mississippi River Basin and the Illinois River. 

Over the last few years, there’s been a major PR campaign to move away from the name Asian Carp, in favor of a new name: “Copi.” The reason is two-fold: First, it joins a general trend of moving species’ names away from nationalistic associations, considering anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The other goal is to make the fish sound more delicious—creating a market that would incentivize fishing the Copi, hopefully reducing their populations.

Joining Ira to talk about this is Jim Garvey, director of fisheries, aquaculture and aquatic sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

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Segment Guests

Jim Garvey

Jim Garvey is the Director of the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you live by a freshwater river or a lake, you’re likely familiar with the Asian Carp. Yes, these fish are not native to the US, but over the last few decades, they’ve gotten into waterways like the Mississippi River basin and the Illinois River. A major PR campaign now is underway to move away from the name Asian Carp and towards the name copi.

One big reason? To rebrand the fish as a sustainable, responsibly sourced food. Joining me to talk about this is my guest Jim Garvey, Director of the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Welcome to Science Friday.

JIM GARVEY: Thank you for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. There’s a lot of thought that goes into changing a name. So what was the origin of the word copi? Did I get it right? Is it copi.

JIM GARVEY: Yeah, it’s copi. Copi is short for copious. So when you’re thinking about bigheaded or Asian carps, as they’re called, they’re quite abundant. They jump out of the water, sometimes hit people in the face when they’re driving a boat, for example.

And so they’re copious. There’s a lot of them out there. And so what we would like to do is have people, when they think about copi, they think about a copious fish and doing their part by eating them so that they can control their abundance in the environment.

IRA FLATOW: Walk me through how much of a problem that this fish is in the Illinois waterways.

JIM GARVEY: Copi actually stands for four different species of bigheaded carp from Asia. One is the grass carp, what is the bigheaded carp, one is the silver carp, and the last one is a fish called the black carp. These four species were aquacultured in China for well over several thousand years because they are very valuable in what we call polyculture because they eat at different levels of the food chain.

So they did very well in China and other parts of Asia. And so when they were introduced here into the United States, they found some really great opportunities in our lakes and rivers and did very well. They were introduced in the early ’70s, late ’60s as food fish and potential fish that could control problems with water quality because they eat algae or tiny plants in the water. But once they escaped from ponds, they started to proliferate and became a real problem when they reached the Illinois River in the late ’90s, early 2000s. And their abundance started to explode.

And then they began to get dangerously close to the Great Lakes. And the Great Lakes already have a huge history of invasive species that are very destructive like zebra mussels and sea lampreys. I think the last thing any of us want is another potential group of invasive species to get in there and have negative economic and ecological effects.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. And why is it so important to change the name from Asian carp?

JIM GARVEY: Well there’s a couple issues here. One is that, in my opinion, carp should be respected just like any other organism. Yes, they’re invasive. Yes, they’re a problem and they can cause economic and ecological problems. But again, they should be respected from the perspective that they are important to Chinese culture and other Asian cultures for a very long time.

And so by placing the name Asian in front of it, there could be a negative cultural connotation to it. So I agree with this. There has been a push by the federal government folks and then the rest of us biologists that are out there just to maybe get rid of the moniker of Asian under that. We all know they come from the continent of Asia. So bigheaded carps is probably a better way to describe this fish.

Now, in terms of the name carp, common carp, which is not part of the four basic copi species, has been around for well over a century and has a very negative connotation, at least among some parts of the fishing public. And so because of this negative carp connotation, the idea is, well, maybe we should move to a name that’s more desirable to the consumer because what we’re trying to do is get people to eat copi, eat them to extinction, if possible.

And so copi is the name that has been introduced. And hopefully, it will stick.

IRA FLATOW: It’s part of an ethic Jewish diet. There’s something called gefilte fish.

JIM GARVEY: Oh, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s made from carp.


IRA FLATOW: Maybe there’s a market here.

JIM GARVEY: Well, there probably is. In fact, there is copi processed and sent to Israel as one of the exports of this fish. There’s exports all around the world from Illinois and other areas where they’re invading the US. They are sent to Africa and other places. So these fish are very valuable culturally, and obviously, nutritionally for many, many countries around the globe. It’s just in the United States, we’re trying to get people to eat more of them because they are a good fish to eat.

IRA FLATOW: When we talk about invasive species, we usually talk about them in context of them wreaking havoc on native species. Is that what’s going to happen eventually if you can’t get people to eat more copi?

JIM GARVEY: Yeah, in fact, there’s a lot of research being done in the last 10 years or so that is suggesting that there has been a negative impact of these four species on native fishes here in the US. Maybe not as much as we expected because when an invasive species comes in, it usually pushes out the native species from their niche. What we found is that perhaps these species have fit themselves better into the ecosystem than maybe other species have.

But there are certain concerns. For example, the black copi, black carp, which is a lesser known of the four species, eats mussels. And the reason we should care about that is because the central US, Mississippi River, for example, Illinois River, has some of the highest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. And so the concern is that these black carp are going to come in and munch those native species.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. When you describe the fish, it makes me think of Chilean sea bass.


IRA FLATOW: Which is also a name-changed fish, right?

JIM GARVEY: Yeah. So there’s many species across the world that had bad rap. And it’s usually reflected in their name. I believe orange roughy was called slim head, for example. Chilean sea bass was the Patagonian toothfish. So when you heard those names, typically, you potentially had a negative connotation to it. Someone wouldn’t want to necessarily eat a slime head.

But when you change the name, you begin to realize that, hey, this is not a bad thing to eat. In fact, it’s quite delicious. And we think that the average consumer might take to the name copi a little bit more than the name carp, which might have a negative connotation to it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if I don’t live in that part of the country, can I go to my supermarket and get a copi carp?

JIM GARVEY: That’s a good question. 10 years ago, no. However, over the last six months or so, there has been a real push to try to get these fish into not only a regional market, but into a national market. So there has been talks among the processors to get the fish basically going nationwide. So that’s the hope.

The biggest problem with all of this is that there’s plenty of opportunity to fish copi. The problem is that there are not enough fisher-people out there to fish them and definitely not enough processing plants to package the fish and get them into market to meet, hopefully, what will be a growing demand.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Well, I’d actually like to find some because I’d like to cook some up. What would be the best way to prepare my copi if I–

JIM GARVEY: Yeah, well, first thing, Ira, check your mailbox. One day, maybe you’ll get a package.


I’ll make sure it’s on ice–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I was going to say–

JIM GARVEY: –or gefilte fish.

IRA FLATOW: –make sure it’s frozen.


JIM GARVEY: These fish are best prepared in many, many ways. They can be– literally, it’s a blank canvas. They can be like a crab cake. They can be served in, traditionally, in soups. Believe it or not, the heads, for example, you may think fish head soup sounds strange. But the head, if you watch any cooking shows or you cook yourself, you know that there’s a lot of collagen in that head, which creates a lot of umami, really good mouth-feel and broths, if you made, for example.

So they can be used in a whole lot of different ways. Also, there’s other products that can come out of these fish, for example, the collagen can be used in health care products. So there’s a lot of ways that you can use copi, not just for food, but for other kinds of products as well.

IRA FLATOW: Animal food? Dogs? Cats?

JIM GARVEY: Absolutely. One of the primary uses of them right now is for fertilizer or put into animal feed. That’s perfectly fine, but that does not pay a lot. So when you’re a person out there busting your behind to fish for these animals, putting them into fertilizers is not going to get you a good return on your effort.

By placing more demand on these fish and then hopefully the market increases so that there’s a little bit more price, you’re going to get more incentive for folks to go out and spend their time and their own money to fish these out of the water.

IRA FLATOW: Jim, that’s about all the time we have for this fish story. I’m looking for that fish, maybe not in my mailbox but–


Jim Garvey, director of Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

JIM GARVEY: Thanks so much, Ira. Take care.

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