Hawaiian Seafood Menus Detail Plight Of Fisheries
August 6, 2013

Hawaiian Seafood Menus Detail Plight Of Fisheries

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Every year, thousands of tourists bring home colorful restaurant menus from Hawaii. These souvenirs hold more than just happy memories; they also contain valuable data that allows researchers to track long-term changes to important fisheries in the state.

A team of scientists, led by Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, is using the menus as part of a larger project designed to fill a 45-year gap in official records of wild fish populations in Hawaii during the early 20th century.

"Market surveys and government statistics are the traditional sources for tracking fisheries. But when those records don't exist, we have to be more creative. Here we found restaurant menus were a workable proxy which chronicled the rise and fall of fisheries," said Kyle S. Van Houtan, adjunct assistant professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and leader of the Marine Turtle Assessment Program at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC).

The team analyzed 376 menus from 154 different restaurants. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, revealed near-shore species such as reef fish, jacks and bottom fish, for example, were common on Hawaiian menus before 1940. By the time Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, however, they appeared collectively on less than 10 percent of menus sampled. Instead, restaurants had begun the shift toward serving large pelagic species, such as tuna and swordfish. Inshore fish had all but disappeared from the menus by 1970, when 95 percent of the menus contained large pelagic fish species instead.

"The decline in reef fish in just a few decades was somewhat of a surprise to us. We knew at the outset the menus would have a unique historical perspective, but we did not expect the results to be so striking," said Jack Kittinger of Stanford University's Center for Ocean Solutions.

Kittinger explained part of this extreme shift might have to do with changes in public tastes, but the team's analysis of landings records and background socioeconomic data suggests the disappearance of reef fish from menus paralleled drops in their wild abundance.

Said Van Houtan, "The menus provide demand-side evidence suggesting inshore fish were in steep decline."

The scientists hope their findings, funded through a 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers awarded to Van Houtan, may create additional opportunities and attention for similar historical analysis elsewhere.

"Historical ecology typically focuses on supply side information," said Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side, perhaps a modern equivalent to archeological middens, in that they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time."

"Most of the menus in our study came from private collections. They were often beautifully crafted, date stamped and cherished by their owners as art," Van Houtan said. "The point of our study is that they are also data."

"This research demonstrates the tremendous wealth of useful information that is often hidden away in people's attics," added McClenachan.