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Yellowknife's iconic Wildcat Café selling fishy pickerel from Kazakhstan

The Wildcat Café is marketing two of its dishes as pickerel from Great Slave Lake. But CBC found empty cartons for frozen fish fillets imported from Kazakhstan in the restaurant's garbage bin.

2 items on menu marketed as being from Great Slave Lake, but actually imported from Central Asia

The Wildcat Café is marketing two of its dishes as pickerel from Great Slave Lake. But CBC found empty cartons for frozen fish fillets imported from Kazakhstan in the restaurant's garbage bin. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Some dishes at the Wildcat Café are not what they seem.

The iconic Yellowknife restaurant's menu features tacos with Great Slave Lake pickerel as a $16 appetizer and pan-seared Great Slave Lake pickerel for a $34 main course.

Acting on a tip, CBC asked local fishers and the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which markets fish caught on Great Slave Lake, if they sold pickerel to the Wildcat Café. None do.

CBC found empty cartons for frozen fish fillets imported from Kazakhstan in the Wildcat's garbage bin. The fillets are marketed as a cheaper substitute for pickerel.

The box of fillets from Kazakhstan that are being sold as Great Slave Lake pickerel at the Wildcat Café. (CBC)

Wildcat operator Sato Chankasingh did not deny that the fish from the cartons is what he's been using for his Great Slave Lake pickerel dishes. He says he never read the labelling on the boxes, which states the fish is pike perch — also known as zander — and is a product of Kazakhstan.

Chankasingh says it's the fish he got when he asked a local food distributor, Northern Food Services, to order him pickerel from Freshwater.

Northern Food Services general manager Roger Walker is more than skeptical.

"I don't believe for a minute he didn't know what he was getting," Walker said.

Chankasingh says he ordered 800 pounds of the fillets in May and has sold almost all of it. He says he used the same fish last year.

Chankasingh says now that he knows the fish is not pickerel from Great Slave Lake, he will attempt to find some fish that is or remove it from the Wildcat's menu.

The menu at the Wildcat Café, showing Great Slave Lake pickerel for $34 and a fish taco appetizer for $16, also listed as pickerel from Great Slave Lake. (CBC)

Undercutting the local fishery

"It is a competitor, it is displacing sales," said Freshwater's Dave Bergunder of sales of zander in Canada and the U.S..

"Great Slave Lake pickerel is from cold, pristine clear water. It's a great fish. If you've eaten a lot of pickerel you can tell the difference."

Last year, a large fish retailer in Winnipeg, the Gimli Fish Market, was found to be offering up wild Manitoba pickerel cheeks that were actually zander cheeks.

So how is it that fish caught 7,000 kilometres away from Yellowknife is cheaper than fish caught in the lake the city sits next to?

"Wages are less, they don't have the same regulations in place," said Bergunder. "For a while all the fish that we observed coming in were very large. Now we're getting large volumes of very small fish… so I think some of their stocks are probably being overfished."

Bergunder says food regulations in Canada allow zander to be sold as pickerel, though it can not be sold as pickerel in the U.S.

Last year of Wildcat lease

The Wildcat Café is only open during summer tourist season. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)
The City of Yellowknife owns the Wildcat Café, having spent $500,000 renovating and expanding the seating four years ago.

Chankasingh is in the second year of a two-year lease. According to the city budget, he pays $12,000 annually to operate a restaurant business there. Under the lease, he pays utilities while the restaurant is operating in the summer and the city pays them in the winter when it's closed.

A director with the city says a new request for proposals will likely be issued in January.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Sato Chankasingh owns Fuego restaurant. In fact, he sold the restaurant, which is no longer in operation.
    Jul 18, 2016 11:10 AM CT

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