Illustration by Juliana Toro

Recently, the Illinois Department of National Resources asked branding studio Span to “rebrand” a fish. 

The new miracle species that Span concocted (in collaboration with design consultancy Daylight) is called “Copi,” named for the “copious,” or abundance, that it promises Americans. Among Copi’s other defining traits, it is “environmentally-friendly,” locally-sourced, wild and responsibly caught. Plus, it’s fresh and mildly flavored, marrying “well with a range of seasonings.” Copi is a “clean, top-feeding” product that is “healthy,” high in Omega 3’s, 6’s, and protein. Copi is also sustainable, and “significantly reduces carbon emissions from waterways to table.”

Copi’s top-notch new branding could not be more different than its original connotations. The “Invasive Carp” or the “Asian Carp,” as they are commonly referred to, is actually multiple species of fish. It’s an “invasive” species. an animal known to “infest” rivers and waterways throughout the Midwest. These fish damage habitats and pose a major threat to the resort and sport fishing industry, thus hurting local economies. It’s a “destructive fish” according to the US fish and wildlife service, and a “parasite.” No wonder people wanted to rebrand it…

But is it possible that design can transform a thing so vile as these “Asian carp” into the bountiful, healthy “Copi?” Can a clean logo plus modernist, low-profile packaging and some studio-photographed shots transform what has historically been an ecological terror into a local, edible, environmentally-friendly animal?

Asian Carp redesign by Span

I’m not so sure. First of all, unfortunately, the newly packaged strips of flesh labeled “Copi” are not real fish. The four species of carp — commonly referred to as bighead, black, grass, and silver carp are creatures that swim, breath, eat, reproduce, think, and do all the things living organisms do; it is a being. Copi, on the other hand, is a product — or more accurately, a pure commodity, illustrated by the fact that Copi in its branded material is represented almost exclusively as a featureless icon of a fish that has no distinguishing features. If there is any part of it that is an animal it is the fished, caught, killed, butchered, treated, packaged, cooked, and sold parts. Only as a dead, marketable product can the fish transform from “destructive” and “invasive” species to “healthy” and “environmentally friendly” products, from “Invasive carp” to “Copi.” And branding plays a key role in transforming an animal into a product.

But there is no question that the fishing industry and US government have created ecological havoc by bringing carp from across the planet to the waters of the American Midwest, but these carp were not always the villains. Introduced to fish farms in the 1970s, the carp was originally brought over in order to clear waters for another fish-made-product in the south, catfish. The carp would eat algae, plant, bacteria, and small animals on the surface of the water, which would in turn make the farmed catfish healthier and better tasting. The fish escaped the farms due to flooding and swam as far as they could up the Mississippi—radically reshaping the water as they went. If we are measuring success as a human or industry might: by population and range, the fish became far too successful for the fishing industry’s liking. And worst of all, they threatened the habitat of many popular sport fish like walleye and crappie. 

What was known as the “Asian carp,” became infamous for the way it leaps from the water to attack fishermen (only one of the species, the silver carp, do this), and they critically threatened a billion dollar fishing industry with collapse.

Typically, there are two responses to the emergence of an invasive species.The first is to simply try and wipe it out. A recent example of an extermination campaign organized by the US government has been the response to the Spotted Lanternfly—“don’t hesitate. Kill it” reported The New York Times. Several task forces, across different states including the National Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, along with the US Army Corps of Engineers, have organized information and technological weaponry against the fish. In design of information, fliers, and PSAs for invasive species are most similar to wanted posters. The animals, while not explicitly accused, are in essence presented as law-breakers and bandits. Even the logo of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee is of a carp in distress (or dying) as a result of the electricity fencing that has been used to control the spread of carp populations. 

Poster for the State of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

But if you can’t beat them, sell them. In the now decades-long, state-sponsored campaign against the Asian carp, Copi is interestingly not the first attempt at a rebrand. The fish have also been given the name “Silverfin” and “Kentucky tuna” for largely the same reasons the US government has now dubbed it “Copi”—to make it sound more appealing as something to catch and eat. But approaching Span studio for the rebrand marks the first time a professional design agency has been approached for the task.

For all of the hate carp have received over the years, approaching this “rebranding” from the perspective that carp might have a lot of good to offer is one of the best things the “Copi” marketing scheme has going for it. The “invasive” label the fish has endured for so long is a kind of branding, after all, even if it doesn’t come with a squeaky clean design.

But the Copi rebrand is fundamentally flawed in the same way that bringing the carp species to the US in the first place was flawed. The rebrand has little interest in better understanding the fish or why it is here, or in considering the new ecological reality that has resulted. 

While the wanted posters and kill campaigns lean too heavily on the agency of these fish — and surely skewed the blame away from the fishing industry for the ecological catastrophe in Midwestern waters — it is far more effective in communicating that a crime has taken place, that something has gone wrong. With Copi, the crime has vanished, for those who have no knowledge of the history, this catastrophic blunder on the part of the Catfish industry was not a mistake at all. Whatever it once was, it is now sustainable. With this new image, that can be quickly shared, posted, and distributed through social media, it has the potential to dominate the common narrative about what these fish actually mean to the rivers and lakes they now occupy. 

Doubling down on a logic that led to crisis in the first place, it asserts that a thing can only be good and bountiful as a commodity. The peril of such an approach can be seen in another famous example of a government marketing a particular fish: Norway’s Atlantic Salmon.

Today, you will find salmon on pretty much any sushi menu you come across, in Japan or abroad — but this was not the case before the 1990s. In fact, the salmon that are local to Japan were known to carry unhealthy parasites and had to be cooked to be eaten. But in 1985, the Norwegian government launched “Project Japan” to market the “surplus” of salmon in Norwegian waters to a nation that loved seafood — and because of overfishing in local stocks in the Pacific, the country was no longer able to sustain its own fish supply. Switching the local Japanese name of salmon from ‘sake’ to ‘sāmon,’ and a targeted campaign, resulted in the value of export doubling by 1991. Within a decade, the fish had become a staple of sushi restaurants around the country. Today, the Atlantic salmon that Norway built their industry around are under threat of extinction — their population has been cut in half since the time “Project Japan” was launched. Their species has been weakened by the fishing industry and the many diseases and spread of sea lice that emerged from industrialized farming. 

Last year, the artist duo Cooking Sections created an exhibition for the Tate Modern focusing on the way that the fish farming industry of Atlantic Salmon has changed the creature. Notably, the color salmon itself no longer emerges naturally in the fish farmed for sushi, as the color pigment emerges in the fish due to several dietary and environmental factors through the lifecycle of a non-farmed salmon. So in order to give salmon the famous salmon color, farms have to feed them artificial pigments to get them the approved. Industry standards for salmon color include Pantones 1555U, 1565U, 487U, 1635U, 1575U, 157U, 486U, 1645U, 1665U, 485U, and 2347U. All can be found on the official SalmoFantm

Measuring salmonid flesh color using the official SalmoFan™ fan

Despite the way that the commodification and industrialization of the Atlantic Salmon has driven the species towards extinction, and changed the creature on such a fundamental level, the story of “Project Salmon” is understood as a success. And from a marketing perspective, it is. And in much the same way, Copi may end up being a great success story, but that does not mean it will be good for the fish or the ecosystem. In fact, to look closely at the problems of the invasive carp, one sees a little bit of concern for the overall health of the ecosystem — but the headline issue of the carp is loss of money from the fishing industry that it threatens. The fishing market of the Great Lakes is valued at seven billion dollars. 

Meanwhile much of the Mississippi River is considered a lost cause, and are at least 25 other species that have been spread by way of the fishing industry, and the by the rapidly changing ecosystem of Midwestern waters. Efforts and money spent to address these ecological problems pale in comparison. 

But the best evidence to the fact that the state and industry is more interested in saving money than saving the ecosystem is the strategy to use branding and marketing to solve the problem. Rather than using education, or making a structural change to the fish industry itself.  Since poisoning and large scale eradication hasn’t worked, nor have technosolutions, the obvious solution is to force the fish into the same commodity form that every other commercial fish has had to suffer. 

It is the natural arch of capitalism to sow ecological crisis. To create scarcity, in order to drive up value. With Copi, the US government is trying to brush over an ecological catastrophe that it created in the name of a healthy, profitable catfish market. Suggesting that the only way to live in harmony with a species is to make that species into something to exploit has unfortunately become the norm in capitalist society. Examples are abound in whales, tuna, cod— follow pretty much any fish you recognize as sold in markets or restaurants and you will find ecological mess in its wake. And in combination with warming waters, global fishing stocks, both freshwater and saltwater have been devastated by rapacious industry. 

“To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millenia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises,” wrote John Berger in his 1980 essay, Why Look at Animals? To brand animal species, especially the ones that have so embodied the crisis that industry has sowed in our shared habitat, is to project this attitude forward into the future. It is to continue to harbor a delusional belief that capitalism, which has in increasingly rapid succession proven that it can only relate to ecology through exploitation and extinction, has not already brutalized the habitat of our future, but will instead set the ecology of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes to something that could be credibly assessed as balanced, healthy and “copious.”