What’s for dinner? Island fish, brah: Study shows Hawaiian restaurant menus hold clues to reef health

27 Jan

hawaii_menu_02Most of us look at menus simply to make a quick decision about what we are going to consume in the near future and at what price.

We then give it back to our server and the menu is most likely forgotten.

But, some people may ask to take home a menu to remember their stay at a special place, such as the islands of the  Aloha state.

Scientists from Duke University, Stanford University and Colby College in Maine are using menus from Hawaiian seafood restaurants to look at changes in Pacific Ocean fisheries.   The menus were collected mostly from tourists who kept them as keepsakes.

During the mid-20th century, the researchers explained there was a period of almost five decades where official records documenting fish populations in the state were missing.  Now researchers must be innovative in how they analyze that time period.

“Market surveys and government statistics are the traditional sources for tracking 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. “But when those records don’t exist, we have to be more creative. Here we found restaurant menus were a workable proxy that chronicled the rise and fall of fisheries.”

The study, which looked at 376 menus from 154 different restaurants, showed somewhat predictable results.

Prior to 1940, fish that dwell near shore were a common delicacy. But, by 1959 when Hawaii was named an official US state, fishes such as reef fish, jack fish and bottom fish only made up about 10 percent of the menus. Instead, the reef dwellers were replaced with large pelagic fish such as tuna.

The large ocean dwellers made up 95 percent of the menus, almost eliminating the presence of near shore fish by 1970.

“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 study co-author Jack Kittinger, an early career fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions.

It could be the public’s taste buds simply changed, but Kittinger believes there is a logical reason for the change of the entree preference. He said the lack of the  shore dwelling fish on the menus went hand in hand with socioeconomic data showing decline in their populations in the wild.

 Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the study, said looking at the menus offered a different perspective on history.

“Historical ecology typically focuses on supply-side information,” McClenachan said. “Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side; they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time.”

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