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US menus and Romans may aid future fish stocks

October 23, 2005

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – Americans scorned lobster until the 1880s
while the ancient Romans loved fish so much that their catches
depleted the Mediterranean, according to a study that may give
clues about how to restore damaged world fish stocks.

Picking through 200,000 U.S. restaurant menus since the
1850s, schooner logs and archaeological sites, marine
historians are finding that capricious human tastes have let
some species thrive while other stocks have been over-fished
for centuries.

“We can only model the future of the oceans based on past
evidence,” said Poul Holm, a Danish environmental researcher
who is leading a team of about 80 experts in an international
project on the History of Marine Animal Populations.

“We’re trying to reconstruct the oceans as imaginatively as
possible,” he told Reuters, giving details of findings to be
presented at a conference in Denmark from Monday to Thursday.

U.S. restaurant menu prices back 150 years, for instance,
chart sometimes inexplicable swings in tastes and prices of
seafood including swordfish, lobster, abalone, oysters,
halibut, haddock and sole.

“Back in the 1860s no one wanted to eat lobster,” said
Glenn Jones, a researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston,
who leads the menu project. Giant lobsters weighing 20 lbs (9
kg) were common in New England.

Considered a trash food in Colonial times, a lobster meal
cost about $5 in the 1880s before surging to about $25 in the
1920s, roughly matching 2005 levels, after it became a delicacy
and stocks suffered.

PILGRIM FATHERS HATED LOBSTER

Food was so scarce for the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1620s
that they lamented they sometimes had to feed the spiny
crustacean to guests. Servants in colonial times negotiated
contracts to limit lobster meals to two a week.

And the size and number of huge vats used by the ancient
Romans to make a popular fish soup indicate that they were
overfishing many Mediterranean species 2,000 years ago, even
though human populations were a fraction of 21st century
levels.

“The Romans ate fish in vast quantities,” Holm said.
“Overfishing in medieval Europe was a very real problem in the
days of William the Conqueror and Leonardo da Vinci.”

“The impacts of early fisheries on pristine stocks can be
quite severe,” he said. Concentrations of small fish bones
found in some Medieval rubbish dumps by the North Sea indicated
that the big fish had already been caught and stocks were
suffering.

Jones said the menu project revealed that some diners
apparently like eating food simply because it is rare and
costly. He said the data might encourage people to eat marine
resources that put less pressure on stocks.

“Somebody sat down in front of these menus and made a
choice,” he told Reuters. “If people know more about what’s
going on in the seas they can make more informed decisions.”

Abalone seashell, for instance, is now a delicacy in San
Francisco restaurants costing about $50-70 a meal but did not
even appear on menus before the 1920s when it cost just $7.

California banned commercial fishing of abalone in 1997
because of over-fishing and the molluscs are now imported from
Australia and New Zealand.

The researchers said the report was not all doom and gloom.
Fish stocks — like in the Mediterranean or the North Sea —
had rebounded after periods of over-fishing.

But many of the world’s fisheries are now in severe
decline, such as once-plentiful cod off Canada. Among newer
species coming under pressure are the Patagonian toothfish or
the orange roughy off Australia.




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