Home News 130-Year-Old Menus Show How Climate Change Affects What We Eat

130-Year-Old Menus Show How Climate Change Affects What We Eat


This story was originally Appear in Hakai Magazine and is climate desk Cooperation.

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

Climate change is a growing reality for the marine species that live near Vancouver and the people who depend on them. In a new study, a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has shown an unexpected way that climate impacts are already manifesting in our daily lives. To find it, instead of looking at a thermometer or ice core, they looked at the restaurant’s menu.

“With the 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 researching climate change and its impact on the ocean. He contributed to several landmark reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but together with UBC undergraduate 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 to eat seafood, so we wanted to see if climate change was affecting the seafood served in restaurants,” Cheung said.

The team collected menus from hundreds of restaurants across the city, as well as restaurants in Anchorage, Alaska, and Los Angeles, California as far afield as possible. The current menu is easy to find, but diving into the history of Vancouver seafood is a little trickier. It enlisted the help of local museums, historical societies and even city halls — which the researchers were surprised to find a century-old record of restaurant menus — to compile their unusual dataset. Anyway, they managed to find a menu that dates back to the 1880s.

Using their records, the scientists created an index called Mean Restaurant Seafood Temperature (MTRS), which reflects the water temperature at which species on the menu prefer to live. Unsurprisingly, they found that Los Angeles had a higher MTRS than Anchorage, with Vancouver in the middle. But by analyzing Vancouver’s MTRS over time, they found a significant trend of warm-water species becoming more prevalent on restaurant menus. In the 1880s, Vancouver’s MTRS was approximately 10.7 °C. Right now, it’s 13.8°C.

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

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