130-year-old menus show how climate change affects what we eat

This story originally appeared in Hakai Magazine and is part of the Climate counter collaboration.

Vancouver, British Columbia, is nothing short of a seafood paradise. Located at the mouth of the formerly salmon rich Fraser River, the city overlooks Vancouver Island to the west, and beyond, the open Pacific Ocean. Long before it had a skyline or a deep-water harbor, this was an abundant fishing ground for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, who still depend on the waters for cultural and spiritual sustenance as well as for food. Today, tourists from all over the world come to sample local favorites such as salmon and halibut fresh out of the water. But beneath these waves, things change.

Climate change is an increasing reality for the marine species living near Vancouver and the people who depend on it. In a new study, a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC) shows an unexpected way in which climate effects are already manifesting themselves in our daily lives. To find it, they looked not at thermometers or ice cores, but at restaurant menus.

“With a menu, you have a physical and digital record that you can compare over time,” explains William Cheung, a fisheries biologist at UBC and one of the authors of the study. Cheung has spent his career studying climate change and its effects on oceans. He contributed to several important reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but along with John-Paul Ng, a student at UBC, he wanted to find another way to both study and communicate these changes.

“A lot of people, especially in Vancouver, go out to restaurants and enjoy seafood, so we wanted to see if climate change has affected the seafood the restaurants serve,” Cheung says.

The team collected menus from hundreds of restaurants in the city, as well as from restaurants further afield in Anchorage, Alaska and Los Angeles, California. Current menus were easy to find, but digging into Vancouver’s seafood history proved a bit trickier. It took help from local museums, historical societies and even City Hall — which the researchers were surprised to learn has records of restaurant menus going back more than a century — to put together their unusual data set. In all, they managed to find menus dating back to the 1880s.

Using their data, the scientists created an index called the Mean Temperature of Restaurant Seafood (MTRS), which reflects the water temperature at which the species on the menu like to live. Unsurprisingly, they found that Los Angeles’ MTRS was higher than Anchorage’s, with Vancouver in the middle. But by analyzing how the MTRS for Vancouver has changed over time, they uncovered a significant trend of warmer-water species appearing more often on restaurant menus. In the 1880s, the MTRS for Vancouver was about 10.7°C. Now it is 13.8°C.

One restaurant that became a key data point in the study was the historic Hotel Vancouver and its Notch8 restaurant, a 10-minute walk from the harbor edge in the city’s financial district. The researchers were able to find examples of the hotel’s menus from the 1950s, ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, and today.

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