Today, Norwegian ocean-farmed salmon is the preferred salmon used in sushi restaurants worldwide, with approximately 50% of Norwegian exports consumed raw. However, it wasn’t always this way. The Japanese have long-standing traditions for serving raw fish, but the consumption of raw salmon was unthinkable in the early 1980s. Pacific salmon was never popular as sushi due to its inferior size and quality, as well a high incidence of parasites, which caused many to consider it inedible.
For a long time, suppliers of tuna, a more expensive commodity, dominated the higher-margin segments of raw fish served as sushi and sashimi, while salmon was sold grilled, fried or smoked at relatively low margins.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Thor Listau visited Japan and witnessed the extensive consumption of low-quality salmon and immediately recognized an opportunity for Norwegian Salmon exporters. At the time, Listau was a member of the Norwegian Parliamentary Committee for Shipping and Fisheries. A few years later in 1980, fish farmer Thor Mowinkel became the first Norwegian Salmon exporter to focus on the Japanese market. He noticed his product was served fried, while sushi and sashimi made up a high-end segment of approximately one million tons.
Norwegian Salmon advocates were determined that their fish belonged in this high-end market despite negative Japanese preconceptions that Norwegian Salmon were not red enough, had inferior-sized heads and smelled like “river fish.” In actuality, Norwegian Salmon [BD1] were large and contained more healthy fat than the Pacific Salmon, making it much tastier and more desirable in its raw state. Not to mention the fact that it was free of parasites and therefore perfectly suited for raw preparation.
As one of the most selective fish markets in the world, Japan finally became accessible when a Norwegian delegation realized what it was going to take to increase salmon consumption. In 1985, the Norwegian government launched Project Japan—a trade initiative developed to expand Norwegian fish and seafood exports to Japan. Thor Listau, now Norwegian Minister of Fisheries, led a delegation of 20 people to Japan armed with premium raw salmon and a goal to triple Norwegian Salmon exports to the island nation. Salmon played a key part in this strategy. The project focused on obtaining the attention of chefs and influencers within the foodservice industry. The visit was a success and Project Japan became largely responsible for increasing global consumption of raw salmon.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan became a thriving place of business and cultural hot spot, leading to an increased interest in Japanese cuisine. This interest coincided with the increasing demand for healthy food and environmental awareness in the 1990s and 2000s. Around the world, fish suppliers recognized the potential of the sushi trend to drive demand for high-quality, high-margin products, and therefore began advocating sushi as a great addition to the national diet. As early suppliers of salmon for raw consumption, Norwegian Salmon farmers were already very familiar with Japanese quality requirements for sashimi-grade products. They continued to expand their marketing efforts while leveraging the growing popularity of sushi across the globe.