A successful 'copi' rebrand of invasive Asian carp promises economic and ecological benefits for the Peoria region
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
That's the core philosophy behind the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' recently-unveiled rebranding of four invasive species of Asian carp. The new name "copi" is short for "copious," a nod to the proliferation of the fish in Illinois waterways. Copi make up to 75 percent of the total biomass of the Illinois River ecosystem. The species compete with native fish for food, and with no natural predators and a high reproductive rate, there's little to impede copi's voluminous population growth.
Since first appearing in the Illinois River in the late 1980s and early 1990s, copi have largely crowded out native species like catfish or gar. The fish's march towards the Great Lakes is checked in part by roadblocks at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet. Reducing the existing population in places where it's already proliferated, like the Peoria and LaGrange pools of the Illinois River, is another prong of the strategy.
Efforts to tamp down the exploding copi population are concentrating on the cultivation of a human consumption market for the fish in the United States. Roy Sorce is the operator of a copi processing facility in East Peoria that works in conjunction with the Midwest Fish Co-op. He said misconceptions turn people away from the fish's benefits.
"They are not a carp. They are not a bottom feeder. They are a filter feeder. They are clean, healthy fish. They are the second healthiest fish you can eat. The only healthier fish is wild caught salmon," Sorce said. "In addition to that they are the largest aquaculture fish in the world, and the most consumed protein fish in the world. The only market that doesn't utilize these fish on a high volume basis is the United States."
Sorce's plant separates the bones from the fish, and processes the meat into a product which can be used for burgers or fish tacos. Bone-free strips of fish are also harvested.
The Midwest Fish Co-op is currently harvesting about 150,000 pounds a week, or 5 million pounds a year, of copi from the Illinois River. Sorce said that will increase to about 8 million pounds a year by 2023 - but it's still not enough to make much of an ecological impact.
"There basically is 15 million pounds of fish we can harvest in the Peoria pool area on an annual basis and not make a dent in that population. Then there's another 15 million pounds as you go south in these other pools," he said.
It's an abundant resource that the region can - and should - capitalize upon, for both economic and ecological reasons, said Ray Lees, the planning program manager at the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.
"You're not going to be able to eradicate them," Lees said. "You might as well turn it into a business and manage them and take advantage of that and promote that for the area."
Sorce's copi business began in 2020, when he took his existing family-owned food service company in a different direction. It eventually evolved into Sorce Freshwater, which works with the commercial fishermen of the Midwest Fish Co-op to provide a continuous stream of incoming catches.
"We came up with a plan and decided to how to implement with their help for them to increase their catches, and the quality of the product they were catching," Sorce said. "So not only did it help with the idea of harvesting more fish, but also increase the quality of the product, to then be able to offer that item, the protein and things like that, to consumers, that'll be more palatable to them and more desirable."
Sorce currently pays about 20 cents per fish per pound for copi. For the average fishermen, that comes out to about $40,000 a year in wages on average, with some earning as much as $120,000 a year.
Lees said there's a significant workforce development opportunity for Central Illinois in copi fishing if the human consumption market takes off. He said the threshold to get into the industry is virtually non-existent, beyond a willingness to put in a lot of hard physical labor. That's particularly notable as most fishermen on the Illinois River are middle-aged or older.
"There's very, very few fishermen in their 30s. There's probably a little bit more in their 40s. But most of these guys are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s," he said. "A couple of these fishermen are in their 80s. And they're doing this backbreaking work of hauling in these nets, and these fish and getting them in the boats."
Sorce runs a zero-waste operation in East Peoria. In addition to preparing copi for human or animal consumption, parts of the fish have uses in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, or even toothpaste. There's also a market for copi's roe, or eggs. A single female copi can produce well over a million eggs a year.
"It's very important for us to increase the value of these fish so we can increase the amount we can pay these fishermen. It's a very difficult job," said Sorce. "But to do that, we have to have people utilize these fish in a positive manner, preferably in the human consumption market. And they can feed a lot of people in need."
Lees said the copi business also has staying power to build upon.
"When you look at a resource like that, nobody's going to take that Asian carp and move it to Georgia or Texas, right? It's not going anywhere. Nobody's gonna be able to move it. It's there. So let's take advantage of it," he said.
The IDNR is promoting the copi name through a new marketing blitz, which includes restaurants selling foods made with the fish. The IDNR is also working to bulk up processing and distribution of the fish.