Seafood menus offer peek into oceans’ past

Seafood menus can help researchers track historical changes in fish populations, a study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggests.

When scientists want to reconstruct past marine ecosystems, they can analyze fishery data, news articles, and photos. But menus also could reveal what types of fish people were eating at the time, the team notes. In isolated locations such as Hawaii, people were likely consuming seafood that had been harvested nearby.

The researchers gathered 376 menus that were used in Hawaii restaurants from the 1920s to 1970s. They found that many fishery trends were reflected in the menus. For example, listings of reef fish, bottomfish, and jacks dropped substantially from the 1930s to the late 1950s. In contrast, the frequency of large pelagic fish entrees increased.

The team obtained most of the menus from private collectors. “They were often beautifully crafted, daily produced, and cherished as art by their owners,” wrote study co-author Kyle Van Houtan, of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, in an email. “They are art. The point of our paper is that they are also data.” Roberta Kwok | 2 August 2013

Source: Van Houtan, K.S., L. McClenachan, and J.N. Kittinger. 2013. Seafood menus reflect long-term ocean changes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment doi: 10.1890/13.WB.015.

Image courtesy of Kyle Van Houtan