Back in the halcyon summer days of the early 1990s, I’d gather with whichever of my buddies who were around, secure a vehicle equipped with enough gasoline and head east on Interstate 80 for a day of sun and fun at Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana.
Sometimes we were greeted by thousands of small dead fish and their associated odors. After the first time or two, which we attributed to the industrial hulks looming nearby along the northwest Indiana skyline, the massive die-offs became routine, the subject of jokes rather than revulsion. We’d move as far as we could from the worst of the carnage and go about our business of cavorting, covert drinking and soaking up rays.
It wasn’t long before our idyllic summertime days were eaten up by employment, and those trips to the beach became far less frequent. Meanwhile, mass die-off episodes involving the fish, an invasive species called alewives, petered out too. Dead alewife instances became rare by the 2000s.
Alewives, traditionally a small saltwater fish that travels in large schools, first were reported in the Great Lakes in the 1930s and gradually became so numerous that chinook and coho salmon were introduced into the lakes to eat them.
Officials indicated the alewife massacres likely weren’t a result of contamination or pollution in Lake Michigan, as they were the only species affected. Rather, they speculated the fish were victims of poor spawning conditions, and over time alewives reverted to intermittent mortality rates. By 2013, the number of salmon stocked in Lake Michigan was cut in half, and in 2016 the amount of stocked fish was cut again. There simply weren’t enough alewives left for the salmon to eat.
In the decades immediately following their introduction to the Great Lakes, Alewives became an important part of the commercial fishery on Lake Michigan, as overfishing and improved fishing technology had decimated native populations of lake trout, sturgeon, walleye and other targeted species. By the 1960s, nonnative smelt, common carp and alewife were the most harvested fish in the Great Lakes, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. In time, the massive bodies of water were no longer able to support much commercial fishing at all.
Careful management over the last few decades has brought back some of the fishing opportunities, but mostly for sport anglers.
Invasive species attention shifted downstate to the Illinois River system, around 2000, when Asian carp started showing up in the nets of commercial fishers. A hundred years before that, the Illinois River contained the nation’s third largest freshwater fishery, behind the Great Lakes and the Columbia River, according to Kevin Irons, assistant fisheries chief for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Illinois-based companies would ship railcar tankers full of bigmouth buffalo and other freshwater fish to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and, of course, Chicago.
“Catfish, bullhead, largemouth bass — it was the land of opportunity early on,” Irons said. “The Illinois River was a huge source of fish protein and freshwater fish.”
They, of course, were overfished, though a smaller fishing industry remained on the river into the 1990s, when Asian carp started showing up.
The fish were initially brought to the US in the 1970s to eat algae and plankton at commercial catfish farms in the South and had made their way north.
“It went from finding one or two to getting nets full of them. There were thousands of them out there,” Irons said. “They piled them up alongside the Illinois River.”
It was a scene that likely made the alewife die-offs look tame by comparison. Irons said within a couple of years the commercial fishing companies along the Illinois found markets for the fish, turning them into fertilizer, dog treats, “all kinds of fish stuff.”
But still, the fish continued to teem in downstate waters as electronic barriers and other means were employed as officials tried to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan.
A few efforts were launched to get Asian carp — an umbrella term for bighead, silver, grass and black carp — onto human tables as well, but none every really caught on.
“It was always doing good in taste testing, outcompeting catfish,” Irons said. “But it wasn’t getting a big following.”
Blame fell on the name.
“They were being tied together with common carp right from the get-go,” Irons said. “Most people’s thoughts about carp were negative. It has a different, stronger flavor than most fish in the world, mostly because of its eating habits.”
Like catfish, common carp root for food in the river bottom muck. Asian carp, on the other hand, eat plankton and algae, so it has a much different taste, he said.
“We went to fishermen, we went to the fish market, and said what can we do?” Irons said. “They said we have to help market this, because the name is all wrong.”
“Copi is one of the most cultured fish for food in the world,” Irons said. “We need to take advantage of it here.”
One of the first places to serve up copy as part of the new rebranding is a natural fit. Calumet Fisheries, at 95th Street and the Calumet River, is reminiscent of the days when nearby Lake Michigan supported commercial fisheries.
On Thursday, assistant manager Ivan Huerta got his first taste of copi, fresh from the Calumet Fisheries smoker.
“It’s good,” he said. “I’ll have to try it when it’s cold.”
Huerta said the texture of smoked copi is “similar to chicken breast” and the taste is “close to whitefish.” But it’s got a lot more bones than the smoked salmon that is the venerable fish shack’s most popular dish.
“It will be a bit of extra work” to eat, he said.
On Thursday, the day after the fish’s rebrand was announced with great fanfare, people were not yet lining up at Calumet Fisheries to buy the renamed fish, though Huerta was cautiously optimistic about his chances of catching on.
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“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Irons was confidant copi will “find a welcome spot on the menu” once it outgrows its association with common carp, but he doesn’t harbor any illusions about us eating our way out of an invasive species problem, despite a track record in Lake Michigan and the Illinois River that indicates otherwise.
“This may or may not solve the problem,” he said. “But it adds to our ability to be most prepared.”
Meanwhile, the alewives, which have spent the bulk of the 2000s quietly being food for sport fish, could have a renewed need for an image makeover as well.
Just last week, there was another massive die-off of alewives in Lake Michigan.
“The die-off is larger than normal this year and something we have not seen in years,” Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said in a release from the agency.
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at email@example.com.