The Wildcat Scandal: Why We Eat Imported Fish on the Shore of Great Slave

With a lake swarming with fish a literal stone’s throw away, it’s little wonder that news that Yellowknife’s most iconic cafe was serving imported fish and calling it Great Slave Pickerel, should cause a mighty brouhaha. Yet according to a local restaurateur, most of the time you’re eating “pickerel” in Yellowknife restaurants, you’re actually chowing down on fillets of zander, a Eurasian cousin of pickerel.   

“The reality is, most of the fish you eat in town is imported. “

“The reality is, most of the fish you eat in town is imported. I know there’s other restaurants in town that certainly get their pickerel from Kazakhstan,” says the restaurateur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Apparently ours comes from Russia,” he adds, after asking EDGE to hold the phone while his co-worker ran to check the boxes in the freezer. “There’s an example for you, I asked the boys and they had to go look at the boxes to tell me where it was from, so it doesn’t surprise me Sato [the operator of the Wildcat] didn’t inspect the boxes.”

Of course, our restaurateur’s menu doesn’t falsely claim their pickerel is from Great Slave Lake, the main point of outrage following the CBC investigation, earlier this week, into the Wildcat Cafe’s fishy menu. But the point he makes about the prevalence of imported fish raises the question: why are we mostly chowing down on fish flown in from halfway around the world when we have a sizable fishery on our doorstep?

Pickerel supply

From conversations with several folks in the industry, it seems to be the result of a combination of price point and supply. First off, there’s not a huge amount of pickerel being caught in the NWT. According to stats from the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment,  in 2015 just under 19,000 Kg of pickerel were delivered to the territory’s principal fish processing plant in Hay River — around 4.5 percent of the total (432,000 Kg) weight in fish delivered to the plant that year.

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There are some fishers around the Kakisa that catch pickerel throughout the summer, and sell mostly to the Freshwater Fish plant in Hay River for export. On the north side of the lake, however, pickerel season is much shorter.

“The earliest I’ve ever caught one is July 25,” says Yellowknife-based fisherman Brian Abbott. “They should start roughly two weeks from now and run till the end of September.”

He gets good prices for pickerel – usually 30 percent higher than whitefish, at around $14/lb off the street, or $12/lb to retailers like the Co-op – but they only ever make up a small percentage of his total annual catch.   

Even with four people fishing out of Yellowknife and selling into the domestic market rather than to the Freshwater plant for export, “there’s always a limited supply and it sells as fast as I catch it,” says Abbott.

For restaurants wanting pickerel as a permanent fixture on their menu, this limited supply means they often have to turn elsewhere – either to suppliers like Freshwater, which do stock Great Slave pickerel, but get most of their supply from Manitoba or Ontario, or to companies that import.

Price point

Although Wildcat operator Sato Chankasingh told EDGE he paid $12.75/lb for the fish that turned out to be zander from Kazakhstan (more on this below), imported pickerel and zander tends to be a cheaper option for restaurateurs.

The price difference doesn’t have a lot to do with quality, Castellano claims: “It’s almost like a Coke and Pepsi challenge.” It’s due, rather, to larger economic trends.

“Just to give you a ballpark idea, our European product is about $7 or $8 a pound… and the zander is around $6 or $6.50,” says John Castellano, a salesman with John O Foods, the major Canadian fish supplier whose fish was sold at the WIldcat. “The domestic product, prime sized walleye, pickerel, would go for $12 to $13 a pound.”

The price difference doesn’t have a lot to do with quality, Castellano claims: “It’s almost like a Coke and Pepsi challenge.” It’s due, rather, to larger economic trends.

“For Canadian freshwater fish, our predominant market is in the U.S., which drives about 60 to 80 percent of the costs due to the higher U.S. dollar and larger demand,” he says. There’s also the more general fact of globalized trade: labour and other inputs are cheaper in a place like Kazakhstan, bringing the price down, even with the added cost of transportation. Castellano is quick to add that “the standards are really high… you’d be surprised how equal to our Canadian safety and food standards they are,” and that despite the “biggest worry [that] the regulations aren’t quite as high as here, our partners assure us the fish are sustainably caught.”

As with other aspects of our globalized food chain, it’s hard to criticize the importing of something like pickerel or zander without criticising just about everything we eat, especially in the North, where nearly all our food is imported and business costs are extraordinarily high. That’s not to say the Wildcat was justified in their false advertising.

Whose fault?

Which brings us to to question of guilt, which is currently a game of he-said-she-said. At this point, no one denies that the Wildcat was falsely advertising where their fish came from, and Chankasingh says he’s since changed his fish supplier to a company sourcing Freshwater Fish – leaving Northern Food Services with more than 350lbs of unsold frozen fish – and his menus. But Chankasingh still maintains that he didn’t know his fish had not been sourced from Freshwater, as he had initially requested when ordering 800 lbs of pickerel from his supplier Northern Food Services.

Both Chankasingh and Roger Walker, the general manager of Northern Food Services agree that Chankasingh had initially asked for pickerel from Freshwater Fish. Their stories differ on what happened next.

Walker (who himself was not  part of the fish-ordering conversation) claims that his company’s operations manager Pietro Bertolini sent Chankasingh a quote for the Freshwater Fish which Chankasingh found too pricey. Bertolini then sent him a second quote for the cheaper imported fish, (according to Walker’s version of the story) which Chankasingh agreed to.

Chankasingh claims he only received one quote for pickerel after requesting they source from Freshwater Fish, which he agreed to.

Given the evidence EDGE has seen, it’s hard to say whose version is true. The only solid piece of evidence is a set of text messages between Chankasingh and Bertolini, in which it’s not clear whether they’re talking about a first quote or a second quote:  

Bertolini: “Pickerel skin off 6-8oz $12.75 lb”

Chankasingh: “Ok I’ll get it”

Bertolini: “Just to confirm 800 lbs right… Also need an answer on the bison burgers before price goes up”

Chankasingh: “Yes on both”

It does seem strange that Chankasingh would agree to pay $12.75/lb if he thought he was getting zander, which is usually considerably cheaper. But then, this is just their text conversation; we can’t be sure of what other communications may have occurred over the phone or by other means, so it’s impossible to say definitively.

Any repercussions?

Whoever is ultimately responsible for the zander scandal, the Wildcat’s reputation has been dealt a major blow. It doesn’t appear, at least yet, that any further consequence is coming. Kevin Brezinski, the GNWT’s director for Consumer Affairs, says he hasn’t heard any complaints yet. His division, however, deals with mediation between disgruntled customers and businesses and does not actually investigate cases of fraudulent advertising. That’s up to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which has, admittedly, begun to get tougher on cases like this in recent years.

In June, a company was charged $1.2 million and sentenced to three years of probation after a CFIA investigation showed they’d mislabelled $1 million worth of tomatoes imported from Mexico as a “product of Canada.” The Wildcat case is a much smaller scale, and it seems unlikely to attract the fed’s investigative ire, especially as the restaurant has already taken steps to remedy the issue.

Whether the restaurant’s reputation survives is another matter. That depends on whose side of the story you believe — and how much you care that you’ve been munching zander rather than pickerel. It’s certainly a controversial fish, one that’s caused a ruckus elsewhere in North America when people have tried to pass it off as pickerel (so much so the CFIA has specified what names you’re allowed to sell it under, including European Pickerel, European Walleye or Pike-Perch, but not straight Pickerel). In parts of Europe, zander is considered a straight-up delicacy.

Ultimately, whatever you think of the Wildcat debacle, it’s important to remember that if you’re eating “pickerel” in Yellowknife almost any month but August or September, chances are it was probably caught a long time ago in a lake far, far away.   

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