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Editorial: Something fishy

A seafood counter is shown at a store in Toronto, May 3. A new study suggests nearly half of seafood sold in Canadian grocery stores and restaurants is mislabelled. — Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
A seafood counter is shown at a store in Toronto, May 3. A new study suggests nearly half of seafood sold in Canadian grocery stores and restaurants is mislabelled. — Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

You’ve probably had it if you like sushi or sashimi. It might have been called “butterfish” or “white tuna” on the menu. And, in small doses, it’s wonderful. It’s smooth, creamy, rich on the tongue, and flavourful.

But it’s actually not tuna at all, and butterfish is just a handy nickname. It’s actually something called escolar, a snake mackerel with an off-putting nickname: “the laxative of the sea.”

Health Canada even has a fact sheet on the species. They describe the problem with the fish in their own governmentally dry way: “Escolar is a type of fish whose muscle tissue can naturally contain approximately 20 per cent by weight of an indigestible oil made up of high amounts of wax esters. This oily substance is named gempylotoxin. … Humans are unable to digest the wax esters in gempylotoxin, thus they pass through the gastrointestinal system. Although its name suggests otherwise, gempylotoxin is not toxic to humans, but is indigestible, having a laxative effect which can cause dramatic, short-lived gastrointestinal responses in some people.”

A “dramatic gastrointestinal response” is a polite way to describe what happens, to be sure.

But it’s actually not tuna at all, and butterfish is just a handy nickname. It’s actually something called escolar, a snake mackerel with an off-putting nickname: “the laxative of the sea.”

The problem is that escolar handles waxy oils from prey that the fish can’t absorb by storing them up in its flesh. You won’t get that option, if you know what we mean. (That it turns up regularly in North American sushi is kind of funny; it’s been banned as a food product in Japan since 1977.)

Escolar’s in the news this week because of an Oceana Canada study on mislabelling in fish products. The study found that, in 44 per cent of the fish samples that the group took in 177 restaurants and retailers in five major Canadian cities — Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver — you weren’t getting what you were paying for.

“This national investigation into seafood fraud and mislabelling — the most comprehensive ever conducted in Canada — found cheaper haddock and pollock substituted for cod; farmed salmon served up as wild salmon; and escolar (a fish banned in many countries because of its health risks) masquerading as butterfish or white tuna. Meanwhile, every single sample of so-called ‘red snapper’ tested was actually another species,” the study reported.

It’s bad enough that, by and large, cheaper fish was mislabelled as a more expensive product. It’s certainly fraud.

But escolar is also evidence of a broader problem. Escolar is a deep water fish, caught for years as unwanted bycatch in the bluefin tuna fishery. As tuna catches dwindled, fishers focused on another unwanted bycatch — Patagonian toothfish, which first was renamed Chilean sea bass, and then was overfished all on its own.

Then, the next level of bycatch, escolar, was suddenly marketable.

We’re fishing our way down the food chain, and misrepresenting what comes to market.

It’s greed, 10 ways.

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