130-year-old menus show how climate change is already affecting what we eat


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Vancouver, British Columbia is nothing short of a seafood paradise. Sitting at the mouth of the once salmon-rich Fraser River, the city overlooks Vancouver Island to the west and to the beyond, the open Pacific Ocean. Long before it had a skyline or a deep-water harbour, it was a bountiful fishing ground for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, who still depend on its waters for cultural and spiritual sustenance as much as for their food. Today, tourists come from all over the world to sample local delicacies like fresh-water salmon and halibut. But under these waves, things are changing.

Climate change is an intensifying reality for the marine species that live near Vancouver and for the people who depend on them. In a new study, a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC) shows an unexpected way in which climate effects are already playing out 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,” says William Cheung, a UBC fisheries biologist and one of the study’s authors. Cheung has spent his career studying climate change and its effects on the world’s oceans. He contributed to many of the landmark reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but together with UBC undergraduate student John-Paul Ng, he wanted to find a different way to study and communicate these changes.

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

The team gathered menus from hundreds of restaurants across the city, as well as 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 the help of local museums, historical societies and even the town hall – which researchers were surprised to learn contained records of restaurant menus dating back more than a century – to compile their set. unusual data. In all, they managed to source menus dating back to the 1880s.

Using their recordings, the scientists created an index called the average restaurant seafood temperature (MTRS), which reflects the water temperature at which the species on the menu like to live. As expected, they found Los Angeles’ MTRS to be superior to Anchorage’s, with Vancouver falling in the middle. But by analyzing how Vancouver’s MTRS has changed over time, they found a significant trend of warmer-water species becoming more common on restaurant menus. In the 1880s, Vancouver’s MTRS was around 10.7°C. It is now 13.8°C.

The researchers drew inspiration from modern and archival restaurant menus, like this June 1888 menu from the Vancouver Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, to track the evolution of the species we eat over time. Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, AM1519-PAM 1888-17

One restaurant that became an important data point in the study was the historic Vancouver Hotel and its Notch8 restaurant, a 10-minute walk from the harborfront in the city’s financial district. Researchers were able to find examples of hotel menus from the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s and today.

David Baarschers is the executive chef of the Hotel Vancouver. Born and raised in Vancouver, he owes much of his passion for food to growing up surrounded by BC’s rich variety of seafood.

“In high school, I had a friend whose father had a fishing boat,” Baarschers says. “Every time they came back from salmon season, they always had a huge amount of shrimp. We would be on their boat cooking them in a pan of water. The first time I sucked the head of a shrimp opened my eyes. To learn that there were so many things you could do with food. It was breathtaking.

While a chef considers people’s food preferences, a menu also reflects what’s nearby. Baarschers says that when he and restaurant staff decide which seafood to order, they have to balance availability with customer taste. “We usually have conversations with our suppliers,” explains Baarschers. “Okay, what happens in season? What are you going to be able to supply us with in the quantity that allows us to put this on our menu?”

As warming intensifies, the species abundant enough to feature on menus continue to change. As Cheung and Ng’s work predicts, local cold-water species like sockeye salmon will continue to decline on Vancouver menus. (In 2019, British Columbia saw its lowest salmon catch over 70 years.)

In their place, southern species settle. One of the most notable of these new arrivals is not a fish, but the Humboldt squid, which has begun to appear in fishermen’s nets and in restaurants around town.

From a leader’s perspective, Baarschers sees the changes as a mixed bag. It’s exciting to work with new kinds of seafood, but they come at the expense of beloved favorites.

“You get to know and love certain objects, and when they decline and you don’t see the same fish around anymore, it’s kind of sad because you just have such great memories,” he says. The changes could also affect Vancouver’s massive tourism industry, as customers now expect certain cash on their plates. “Everyone is waiting for halibut season to come,” says Baarschers. “And if you don’t have halibut on the menu, people wonder why.”


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