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

This story is original appeared in Hakai Magazine and it is a part Climate Desk cooperation.

Vancouver, British Columbia is nothing short of a seafood paradise. Located at the mouth of the once salmon-rich Fraser River, the city overlooks Vancouver Island to the west and the open Pacific Ocean beyond. Long before it had a skyline or a deep harbor, this was a rich 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 food. Today, tourists come from all over the world to sample local favorites such as salmon and halibut fresh from the water. But beneath these waves things are changing.

Climate change is an increasingly 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) shows an unexpected way in which climate effects are already manifesting in our daily lives. To find it, they looked not to thermometers or ice cores, but to restaurant menus.

“With a menu, you have a physical and a digital record that you can compare over time,” explains William Cheung, a fisheries biologist at UBC and one of the study’s authors. Cheung has spent his career studying climate change and its effects on the oceans. He has contributed to several landmark reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but together with John-Paul Ng, an undergraduate student at UBC, he wanted to find a different 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 that restaurants serve,” says Cheung.

The team collected menus from hundreds of restaurants across the city, as well as restaurants as far away as Anchorage, Alaska and Los Angeles, California. Current menus were easy to find, but digging into Vancouver’s seafood history proved a bit more difficult. It took the help of local museums, historical societies and even City Hall—which the researchers were surprised to learn had restaurant menu records going back more than a century—to compile their unusual data set. All in all, they were able to find menus dating back to the 1880s.

Using their records, the scientists created an index called the Restaurant’s Mean Seafood Temperature (MTRS), which reflects the water temperature in which the species on the menu prefer to live. Predictably, they found that Los Angeles’ MTRS is higher than Anchorage’s, with Vancouver falling in the middle. But by analyzing how the MTRS for Vancouver has changed over time, they found a significant trend of warmer-water species becoming more common on restaurant menus. In the 1880s, the MTRS for Vancouver was approximately 10.7 °C. It is now 13.8 °C.

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

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