Kevin Moran: Analysis Of Historical Menus Reveal Fishing Patterns

Roundup: Talking About History

Scientists trying to document worldwide commercial fishing trends in the last 150 years are turning to a seemingly unscientific data source - thousands of old restaurant menus.

Odd as it seems, the menu analysis by Texas A&M University-Galveston oceanographer Glenn Jones is drawing international interest. He is scheduled to present data from initial studies at a conference of ocean historians in Denmark this week.

Some of the information Jones has gleaned might shock today's restaurant patrons.

"Before the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus," said Jones. "It was considered trash fish that people didn't want."

Glenn said his interest in menus as historical resources evolved from a project in which he assigned students in a coastal resources class to study seafood price data based on prices in a 1950s restaurant menu he came across.

Besides documenting the rise and fall in popularity and prices of fish and mollusk species in restaurants, menus also provide scientists with serious documentation of the economics of commercial fishing over the decades, he said.

"Sea scallops don't show up on the menus until the 1940s," Jones said. "Before that, it was all bay scallops on menus. Now, bay scallops are pretty rare and the ones you get are real small."

Other U.S. seafood resources are depleted as well, Jones said. Industry records show oyster harvests from Chesapeake Bay are down 96 percent from annual hauls in the early 1900s, he said.

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