A lot of guys have fish stories, but Wayne MacAlpine's is a doozy. It's a tale of how a young Canadian launched what the Japanese call "the day of the flying fish" - the day in 1972 when a 325-kilogram bluefin tuna was flown halfway around the world to give birth to the global sushi business.
"From the day that fish arrived in [Tokyo] and got the auction price that it did, that was the beginning of the globalization of sushi," the 68-year-old retiree recalled recently as he sampled some maguro nigiri - a finger of fatty raw tuna pressed into rice; the staple of Japanese sushi that has spread the world over - at Mye Japanese Restaurant near his home in Oakville.
The setting itself - a fine-dining sushi restaurant that would have been unheard of in suburban North America a few decades ago - is testament to a revolution that was triggered by the successful transportation of high-quality fresh fish around the world, which Mr. MacAlpine helped pioneer when his bosses at Japan Airlines Corp. (JAL) asked him to find something to fill the company's cargo planes for the trip back to Japan.
Mr. MacAlpine's story was all but forgotten on this side of the ocean, until he was tracked down by U.S. journalist Sasha Issenberg while researching his recently published book, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy.
Yet anyone who enjoys sushi, whether from a high-end restaurant or a grocery store cooler, owes a debt to Mr. MacAlpine and the work he did three decades ago.
Without it, sushi might still be a gastronomic curiosity confined to Japan and a smattering of sea ports, bound by the obvious limitations of serving a raw, highly perishable product.
By harnessing air transport, new refrigeration techniques and transcontinental communications, he and his colleagues at JAL triggered a a major transformation in the sushi business.
They took it from a centuries-old localized business to a sophisticated worldwide industry, all in the space of a generation.
The story is also a lesson on how small-scale Canadian exporters - in this case, a handful of Prince Edward Island fishermen and the unorthodox owner of their local processing plant - can excel on the global trading stage by meeting the exacting requirements of a highly profitable niche market.
So how did Mr. MacAlpine, at the time a rookie JAL cargo employee who had never been to Japan and had never seen sushi, become a pivotal character in the birth of a global culinary phenomenon? It started with a problem, a teletype and a tuna burial ground.
When Mr. MacAlpine started as JAL's first Canadian cargo rep in the spring of 1971, the air carrier was suffering from a side effect of Japan's then-booming consumer exports trade: For every seven tons of goods its cargo planes transported to North America from Japan, only one ton of North American goods was shipped back. Another young employee in the airline's cargo department, Akira Okazaki, was charged with finding some solutions.
Mr. Okazaki set about looking for goods that would command a high price from Japanese buyers and were sensitive to decay - a combination that would make the speed of air transport worth its high cost.
He locked on to tuna - a huge fish weighing several hundred kilograms whose value was soaring in the auction houses of Japan's major fish markets due to its rising popularity as a sushi delicacy among the country's growing affluent classes.
Having heard that tuna were particularly big and plentiful off Canada's East Coast, he sent a teletype to Mr. MacAlpine in Toronto: Could he look into Atlantic Canada's tuna fishing business?
After making a few calls, Mr. MacAlpine sent word back on what he had uncovered: North Lake, PEI. The tiny coastal village was a haven for sports fishermen, who came to town every summer to wrestle massive North Atlantic bluefin tuna, which averaged more than 350 kilograms and occasionally got almost twice that big.
"The Japanese chefs think of them as being of very good quality," Mr. Issenberg said. "Because they are large, they have a lot of toro, the sort of fatty belly that became the most prized luxury delicacy in Japan." As a result, Atlantic bluefins are among the most expensive fish on the planet.
But to North Lake's local commercial cod fishery of the day, they were little more than a nuisance. They were considered too fatty to be edible, they were predators and they wreaked havoc on nets. Even the sportsmen had no use for the bluefins after posing for the obligatory photos with their prize catches.
"They were basically worthless," Mr. MacAlpine said. "The sports fishing club would literally have to pay someone to take the fish. Usually they would get a small bulldozer or front-end loader or something, dig a hole, and bury them."
It was a perfect combination: The fish's substantial size made it ideal for air transport; its worthlessness in the local commercial market meant it could be obtained cheaply and easily; and its desirability to sushi connoisseurs meant that if it could make it to Japan in good condition it would fetch a king's ransom at Tokyo's hallowed Tsukiji fish market.
That was a big if. It's a long trip from rural PEI to a sushi bar in downtown Tokyo and, in order to fetch top yen, the fish needed to arrive fast, fresh and undamaged. Complicating matters further was the fact that JAL didn't fly into Atlantic Canada, which at the time had no airports capable of handling wide-bodied jets. Its closest cargo stop was New York's JFK airport. "There was only one option: It had to be trucked," Mr. MacAlpine said.
If the tuna were to survive the long, arduous trek in the kind of condition demanded by Tokyo's finest sushi restaurants, Mr. MacAlpine would need some local help to ensure that the fish were caught, killed, cooled, packed and trucked according to exacting standards. He settled on Albert Griffin - a tough-minded, rough-around-the-edges owner of a North Lake fish processing plant who seemed an unlikely international partner for buttoned-down Japanese businessmen.
"We had been cautioned that this guy was a tough businessman, maybe too tough. A lot of the local fishermen, while they respected him, were wary of him," Mr. MacAlpine said.
And he was, reputedly, a former prohibition-era rum runner with a taste for alcohol. "He would pick me up at the airport, he'd throw me the keys to his car, he'd sit in the passenger seat and, every time, that little brown bag came out."
Pinstripe-suited JAL officials who flew in from Japan to meet with Mr. Griffin quickly became aware that this was nothing like doing business in downtown Tokyo. Early meetings typically devolved into long nights of beer and cribbage at Mr. Griffin's kitchen table.
"But even though he didn't understand the Japanese, or Japanese culture, he understood business," Mr. MacAlpine said. "Albert was smart enough to give the Japanese customers exactly what they wanted."
Local fishermen were skeptical about the idea, but money helped sway them. JAL offered a profit-sharing system under which the fishermen received a direct cut of the auction price for each of their fish - motivation to handle the tuna according to the picky Japanese specifications.
Mr. Griffin also found a novel solution to the problem of procuring suitable crates to hold each enormous, yet delicate, fish.
"Albert introduced us to the local funeral directors, the Dingwell brothers," Mr. MacAlpine said. "They used to build their own boxes for coffins. Those were the first [shipping] containers."
After some early trial and error in the optimal cooling and shipping times for the sensitive cargo, Mr. MacAlpine and his team managed to get five well-preserved Atlantic bluefin tuna to the Tsukiji market's early dawn auction on Aug. 14, 1972 - a mere four days after they were caught off PEI's coast. Tokyo's fish buyers marvelled at the logistical feat and were suitably impressed by the tuna's condition. When the first fish sold at a premium price, "the day of the flying fish" had taken its place in Tsukiji lore, and the nature of the sushi business was forever changed.
By the end of 1972, JAL had shipped 173 Canadian bluefins to auction in Japan, and by 1976 they were approaching 1,000 a year, representing a multimillion-dollar export business. Other air cargo transporters had gotten into the act, and the North Atlantic bluefin fishery had spread to Nova Scotia and New England. Additional sources and species of fish were being tapped around the world, and sushi had begun its global spread.
Meanwhile, prices for bluefin tuna surged, as its increased availability only seemed to increase the appetite of restaurant patrons for the delicacy. The average price paid to fishermen, which had been about 10 cents a pound in the early 1970s, had reached $10 a pound by 1990; by the time that made it to individual restaurants in Tokyo, top chefs were paying $100 a pound.
The boom put little North Lake on the map; it became known as The Tuna Capital of the World. But the business there began to change in the mid-1980s as competition for the coveted fish grew increasingly aggressive and fish brokers began buying directly from the boats, often forgoing much of the stringent handling requirements that JAL had introduced.
The lack of controls hurt prices, though not nearly as much as the Japanese economic slump that began in 1990. But by then, North Lake had a bigger problem: Its tuna had disappeared. Probably due to shifting migratory and feeding patterns for the big fish, they simply left the waters off PEI for about a decade. But as quickly as they had left, they reappeared in the late 1990s.
The fish had returned with a vengeance by 2000, and the North Lake tuna business was once again thriving.
All the while, the popularity of sushi has continued to spread. The advent of "flying fish" meant sushi restaurants could thrive anywhere.
"What happened after the day of the flying fish is seafood became this luxury food that reflected access to the global economy. Anybody who was willing to pay for it could eat fresh fish as if they were sitting on the coast of any ocean around the world," Mr. Issenberg said. "We have this idea that the closer you get to the water, the fresher your seafood is. I think [that's] the big lie of every clam shack or dockside fish house. If you're looking for fresh fish, going to the ocean might not always be as good as going to a good cargo terminal at a major international airport."
As for Mr. MacAlpine, he remained at JAL until retirement in 2002. He travelled to Japan several times a year during his career and developed a deep affection for his long-time colleagues there - and for the tuna sushi he helped popularize.
" Maguro was the first Japanese word I learned," he said.
A brief history of sushi
The early years
Sushi's history can be traced back thousands of years - and freshness wasn't its hallmark. "The Japanese tradition of eating fresh raw fish has nothing to do with sushi. Sushi began as a way of preserving old fish," writes Trevor Corson in The Zen of Fish. Southeast Asian farmers would cover gutted fish with cooked rice, seal it in a jar and allow it to ferment. When it was time to eat the fish (up to a year later), the stinking rice was thrown away. The taste? More like blue cheese than fresh hamachi.
The first fast food
By the 8th century, nare-zushi had made its way to Japan. The Japanese gradually shortened the fermenting time, opening the jars early and developing a taste for the tangy rice. The invention of rice vinegar in the 1600s provided a way to make rice tart without months of waiting. In the 19th century, Hanaya Yohei perfected the modern presentation of sushi, which was sold as a street snack from outdoor stalls in Tokyo until after the Second World War, when they were banned.
Sushi's rise in North America began in Los Angeles in the 1960s; one of the first sushi bars was a restaurant called Tokyo Kaikan, where a chef named Ichiro Mashita invented the California roll. It took another 15 years or so before sushi establishments began to appear across the continent.