Freakonomics of the sea

"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.

In recent decades, American consumers in particular have chewed their way through two trendy delicacies, Jones said.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, orange roughie starts showing up on menus," Jones said. "But it’s a very slow-growing species and they were harvesting it much faster than the species could replace itself so it’s becoming commercially extinct"

Fishing boats simply shifted from chasing roughie in waters around New Zealand and Australia to pursuing Chilean sea bass in the southern Pacific and southern Indian oceans.

"They just moved on to another species," Jones said, citing catch statistics. "Now, the same thing is happening with the Chilean sea bass"

The same type of progression took place among Atlantic ocean species from the 1850s into the 1900s, Jones said.

Analysis so far has included menus mostly from coastal cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Providence, R.I., Jones said.

Here is the full story, and thanks to Dylan Alexander for the pointer.  Here is another summary, try this one too.  In Colonial America, servants wrote contracts specifying they would not be asked to eat lobseter (how fresh? and did they give you a bib and that little fork?) more than twice a week.  Here is a Canadian summary of the work.

Did I mention that we are running out of many species of fish, and that we will be consuming lower and lower items on the marine seafood chain?  I favor private ownership of fish stocks, to alleviate the commons problem, but a) this is not always technically feasible, and b) where possible, it would cause current prices to skyrocket, making those fish a luxury good.  Quotas can be a second best solution but they are hard to enforce.  I hope you like seaweed.


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