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SLIDESHOW: Restaurant Menus Provide Valuable Data On Fish Populations

Duke researchers have thought up a creative way to fill in missing details about Hawaii's wild fish population: restaurant menus.  

The colorful artifacts that tourists often save as souvenirs are filled with tiki-men, surfers and luau girls. But they also contain valuable information that a trio of scientists used to fill in a 45-year gap in Hawaii's official records during the mid-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 that 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. The other authors of the study are Jack Kittinger, an early career fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, and Loren McClenachan, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Maine.

The team analyzed 376 menus from 154 different restaurants. Their research showed that near-shore species such as reef fish, jacks and bottom fish were common on Hawaiian menus before 1940. By 1970, these species had all but disappeared from menus and were replaced by large pelagic species, like tuna and swordfish. Changes in public taste alone could not explain such a drastic change. 

“The menus provide demand-side evidence suggesting inshore fish were in steep decline,” Van Houtan said.

The researchers said they hope their nontraditional  method will inspire similar historical analyses elsewhere. The menus were collected mostly from private collections. 

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

The project was funded through a 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers awarded to Van Houtan. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 


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