Why Missouri rebranded this problem fish

A fisherman holds a Copi/

Our taste buds savor the flavor of pan-fried tilapia, blackened salmon, marinated catfish filets or a buttery sauteed halibut. Now, a new fish is flopping its way onto the menu.

Asian carp are sometimes called “silent invaders” of the fishery world. The massive fish are known for enthusiastically leaping from the rivers. Unlike the common carp, they’re plankton feeders, with cleaner, sweeter flesh than their bottom-feeding cousins.

Now, they’re being rebranded by state game departments to have a more palatable name: copi. The name is short for “copious,” a word that means “abundant in supply”—the perfect description of this highly populated species of fish.

“Asian carp” is a collective name for the various species of carp, including the bighead, black, grass and silver carp, which were imported in the 1970’s to control algae blooms primarily in wastewater treatment plants. Soon, the leaping fish escaped from the treatment plants into local waterways and were labeled an invasive species as they rapidly overpopulated their surroundings.

“They outcompete native fishes,” says Angela Sokolowski, an ecologist who specializes in invasive species for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “This has had a negative impact on anglers and the local industries that bring in anglers. It is also believed they can decrease water quality, which can negatively affect native mussels.”

They’re also dangerous in their own way: “Silver carp are notorious for jumping out of the water, which can injure boaters and others recreating on the water.”

Following their silent invasion of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, copi have been seen jumping overzealously from the surface of the water that is agitated by boats. Many rivergoers share the same story of leisurely boating down the river when, out of nowhere, they are violently struck in the face by these sizable fish. Safe to say these individuals may be the most eager to see Asian carp on the menu.

Common carp are generally shunned by American fishermen, though they are popular in other parts of the world. The species we call Asian carp are very different fish, prompting the rebranding effort to hopefully encourage the public to catch and eat them. The state departments found that the public had a misconception about the copi, believing that these bottom-dwelling water foragers are “dirty” and “uneatable”—but it is quite the contrary.

Those who have had the opportunity to have a bite—whether broiled, baked, fried, blackened or sauteed—tend to agree that copi are worthy of appearing on restaurant menus. “the time I had it, it was deep-fried and I thought it had a much nicer flavor than a deep-fried sucker,” says Sokolowski. “It was delicious. It wasn’t fishy. It was very mild. It was on par for me with fried catfish for pleasantness.”

Attendees of the Missouri State Fair also approved when served bighead and silver carp, Sokolowski says.

Rob Connoley, a chef at Bulrush St. Louis, which serves an Ozark-inspired menu, has developed a go-to method for cooking copi. “The few times I have worked with it, we’ve smoked it,” Connoley says. “I treated it like New York’s popular smoked white fish.”

Copi was officially rebranded in early 2021 and got a push last year. It may seem silly, but copi is not the first fish to be made more appetizing by a new name.

“What we buy in the store now as orange roughy used to be called slimehead,” says Sokolowski. “They renamed Patagonia toothfish to Chilean sea bass. If people like eating orange roughy or copi, they increase the demand, and that incentivizes the market. The hope with copi is to increase the demand to make it profitable for commercial fisherman to target.” 

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