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Long-Term Ocean Changes Are Recorded in Hawaii Seafood Menus

Seafood menus

Scientists are utilizing these antique menus to fill a 45-year gap in official records of wild fish populations in the Hawaii State’s ocean waters. Their findings are published as a peer-reviewed letter in the journal Frontier in Ecology and the Environment. *Image source: Kyle Van Houtan.

Thousands of tourists bring the colorful restaurant menus home as souvenirs from Hawaii, but they may not know that these menus hold more than happy memories of island vacations; they also contain valuable data that are helpful for scientists to track long-term changes in important fisheries in the Aloha State.

 “Government statistics and market surveys are usually the conventional sources for tracking fisheries. However, we have to be more creative if those records do not exist. Here, we found restaurant menus can be a workable proxy which chronicled the rise and fall of fisheries,” said Kyle Van Houtan, adjunct assistant professor at Nicholas School of Environment, Duke Univeristy and leader of the Marine Turtle Assessment Program at NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center.

The research team analyzed about 376 menus from 154 different restaurants and the results showed that near-shore species like jacks, reef fish and bottom fish, for instance, were common on Hawaiian menus before the year of 1940. Yet, by its statehood in 1959, these fishes appeared collectively on less than 10 percent of menus surveyed. During that period, restaurants started to shift from near-shore species to large pelagic species, such as swordfish and tuna. By 1970, around 95 percent of the menus contained large pelagics while inshore fish had all disappeared.

Jack Kittinger, co-author of the study at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, said: “The decline in reef fish in a few decades was somehow a surprise to us. We knew at the outset the menus might have a unique historical perspective, yet we didn’t expect the results to be so striking.”

Kittinger also added that changes in public tastes may explain part of this extreme change, but the group’s analysis of landings records and background socioeconomic data reveals the disappearance of reef fish from menus paralleled drops in their wild abundance. “The menus offer demand-side evidence indicating inshore fish were in a steep decreasing trend,” said Van Houtan.

The researchers hope their research could increase attention and opportunities for similar historical analyses in other places.

 “Historical ecology generally focuses on supply side information. Restaurant menus are an available yet usually overlooked information source of the demand side, probably a modern equivalent to archeological middens, in that they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time” noted Loren McClenachan, co-author of the study and assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College.

Van Houtan said: “Most of the menus in the study came from private collections. They were usually beautifully crafted, date stamped and cherished by their owners as artifacts. However, in our study, they are also valuable data.”

 “This research suggests that the tremendous wealth of valuable information are often hidden in people’s attics,” added McClenachan.

SourceScience Daily