Yang is far from the only person fixated on this fish. There’s a growing movement spearheaded by scientists, chefs, and the US freshwater fishing industry to rehabilitate copi’s reputation, to convince Americans that it’s an underrated, affordable, and ecofriendly protein rather than a pest.
Kevin Irons, for instance, has been devoted to the cause since the 1990s, when he moved his family to Havana, Illinois, to be a large river ecologist. The same year he arrived, a commercial fisherman caught a copi in the Illinois River. The fisherman had never seen it before, and it freaked him out. “He’s dripping fish blood across the carpet in the research center, saying, ‘What the heck is this?’” Irons says.
Copi has been in waterways in parts of the southern United States since the 1970s, when environmentally-minded aquaculturists imported them to clean catfish retainer ponds. At the time, they were seen as a green alternative to chemicals. Perhaps they would have remained just that, had they not escaped during floods, entered local waterways, and then absolutely dominated every other creature. These fish are, above all else, incredibly adaptable and hardy. After it arrived on his home turf, Irons did everything he could to understand them. “I was traveling around the world talking about these critters,” he says. By 2010, Illinois had hired him to build up a program to deal with the invasive creature.
It’s a tough job. Although it took decades for copi to arrive in Illinois, once it was there, it quickly upended the ecological balance. Copi eat plankton and algae—so much plankton that other fish get bupkes and native populations dwindle or die out entirely. In many rivers, the water is so crowded with these creatures that other fish have evolved to be skinnier or oddly-shaped to squeeze past them. If they reach the Great Lakes, they could destroy their ecosystem. The threat is so dire that the government has spent billions erecting massive electric dams to zap the fish back downstream. But these dams are not foolproof. Last year, a silver carp made it all the way to Lake Calumet, just 7 miles from Lake Michigan.
For more than a decade in his role at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Irons has advocated for another method as part of a larger strategy to keep these fish away from the Great Lakes and reduce their overall population: eat them up. He’s at the center of a long-gestating campaign to give the fish a reputational makeover thorough enough to whet American appetites.
“The name was a barrier,” Irons says. The association between Asian carp and environmental menace was too strong; besides, when most Americans hear “carp,” they think of unappetizing bottom-feeders. There had been previous rebranding attempts for the fish by different states—“Kentucky tuna” didn’t stick—but other successful renaming schemes gave them hope. The deep-sea fish now known as orange roughy, for instance, exploded in popularity after a campaign to change its off-putting original moniker: “slimehead.” Chilean sea bass, now often found on high-end menus, is actually the fish formerly known as Patagonian toothfish. (It’s also neither bass nor from Chile.)
In 2018, the IDNR partnered with a few other organizations, namely the environmental emergency firm Tetra Tech, to give Asian carp the Chilean sea bass treatment. They went all out, hiring a marketing firm called SPAN to come up with a spiffy logo and brand identity for the longtime problem fish, in addition to its new name.