When Fish Fly as Air Cargo

Verschiedene Sushi mit Ingwer, Sojasauce und Wasabi

Image: LatinStock

APEX Insight: Fresh food has been taking off on airport menus around the world, and there may be a practical reason for it. We look at the global fresh fish economy and the central role aviation plays in transporting and preserving sea cargo.

Travelers sitting down to enjoy master sushi chef Ike Aikasa’s menu at Origami Sushi may not realize that they have Japan Airlines, in part, to thank for their fresh fish.

Origami joins Surf Bar Oases and Saison, the latter featuring a bounteous raw bar, within airport experience firm OTG’s culinary overhaul of Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal C, and adds to a growing list of airport restaurants with fresh fish on offer. Prized for its diet-friendly vitamins and omega-3s, and its acceptance among many of the faith-abiding, seafood is as on-trend as it ever was; but for airport chefs, there’s more to it than that.

“The value and sensitivity to decay perfectly matched the economics of air freight.” – Sasha Issenberg, The Sushi Economy

“We are super-focused on having a very fresh fish program here,” says Ariel Fox, OTG’s Terminal chef de cuisine at Newark, whose menu at Saison includes Maine peekytoe crab, trout, and oysters from both coasts. “[The seafood] is getting flown in and dropped off here, so it’s pretty much as fresh as it gets” – a fact that may be responsible for luring big fish, such as Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse, to airport ponds.

Apex-Experience-6.4-Seafood 4

Image: Surf

The idea of fish as air cargo, not surprisingly, came from the Japanese. As Sasha Issenberg explains in his book The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, in 1971, Akira Okazaki, recently appointed to a leadership role in Japan Airlines’ cargo division, had a one-way traffic problem on his hands. The airline’s cargo holds were flying full of electronics en route to the United States, but nearly empty on return to Narita Airport.

In his quest for an import market to tap, Okazaki realized that fish – more perishable than fruits and vegetables that could be more affordably transported by sea, less regulated than meat and, of course, a staple of the Japanese diet – was the answer. “The value and sensitivity to decay perfectly matched the economics of air freight,” writes Issenberg.

Qatar Airways Cargo and Korean Air Cargo are among the many that fly to the North Atlantic coast to export fresh seafood to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

A stroll through Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market revealed that tuna, once unappealing to Japanese palates, was coming into vogue. With the help of the airline’s lone Canadian cargoman, Okazaki secured an angler along Prince Edward Island’s bluefin-filled Atlantic shores. Hook and line secured, there was only one catch: transporting the tuna, good for four days, in refrigerated containers light enough to fly and cool enough to maintain freshness without causing so-called meat burn.

New refrigerated containers were designed to fit in the lower cargo belly of DC-8 aircraft, and five fish, four days and $40,000 later, Atlantic bluefin tuna was sold for the first time at Tsukiji market on August 14, 1972, for a remarkable 1,200 yen per kilo. Remembered in Japanese folklore as “The day of the flying fish,” Okazaki’s acumen led to a boom for Japan Airlines’ inbound freight unit: Just two years later, bluefin constituted 90 percent of its cargo from Canada. But, more significantly, it also ushered in the rise of a global fresh fish economy.

Japan Airlines’ advancements in refrigerated containers and seafood cargo – it even produced a manual for fish dealers on how to ready tuna to fly – have been improved on over the years and adopted by several airlines. Qatar Airways Cargo and Korean Air Cargo are among the many that fly to the North Atlantic coast to export fresh seafood to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Demand for live lobster, particularly, has skyrocketed in recent years.

Image: Alaska Airlines

Image: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Air Cargo flies upward of 25 million pounds of seafood each year – approximately 19 million pounds of salmon, halibut, cod and live king crab direct from Alaska. For the past six years, the airline has celebrated the annual rite of spring by flying the first catch of Alaska’s Copper River salmon to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) for its yearly Copper Chef Cook-Off. Copper River salmon is a big catch for Seattle’s restaurateurs who, back in the 1980s, stirred up competition for the export of the salmon, which, like the bluefin tuna, was mostly being flown to Japan.

The fatty, deep red salmon swims a grueling 300 miles up the Copper River’s glacial currents before being scooped up by local anglers and flown down to Seattle, where it lands on menus at Ray’s Boathouse, Ivar’s seafood restaurants, Anthony’s restaurants and other fine establishments. But those looking for the freshest catch may not need to look much farther than Anthony’s or Ivar’s Sea-Tac outposts, where the freshest Copper River salmon is delivered straight from sky to table.

“When Fish Fly” was originally published in the October/November issue of APEX Experience magazine. 

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Paris, France.