Vancouver, British Columbia, is nothing short of a seafood paradise. Located at the mouth of formerly salmon-rich Fraser River, the city overlooks Vancouver Island to the west, and beyond it, the open Pacific Ocean. Long before it had a skyline or a deep-water port, this was a rich fishing ground for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, who are still as dependent on its waters for cultural and spiritual nourishment as for food. Today, tourists from all over the world come to taste local favorites like salmon and halibut fresh from the water. But during these waves, things change.
Climate change is an intensifying reality for the marine species living near Vancouver and the people who depend on them. In a new study, a team from the University of British Columbia (UBC) shows in an unexpected way that climate effects are already showing up in our daily lives. To find it, they did not look 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,” 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 of the landmark reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but together with John-Paul Ng, a bachelor’s student at UBC, he wanted to find another 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 the restaurants serve,” Cheung says.
The team collected menus from hundreds of restaurants around the city, as well as from restaurants further afield in Anchorage, Alaska and Los Angeles, California. Current menus were easy to find, but it turned out to be a little harder to dig into the history of Vancouver’s seafood. It required the help of local museums, historic communities and even the town hall – which the researchers were surprised to learn have records of restaurant menus dating back a century – to compile their unusual data sets. In all, they managed to fetch menus back to the 1880s.
Using their records, the researchers created an index called Mean Temperature of Restaurant Seafood (MTRS), which reflects the water temperature that the species on the menu likes to live at. Predictably, they found that the MTRS in Los Angeles was higher than for Anchorage, where Vancouver fell in the middle. However, by analyzing how MTRS for Vancouver has changed over time, they found a significant tendency for warmer water species to become more common on restaurant menus. In the 1880s, the MTRS for Vancouver was about 10.7 ° C. Now it’s 13.8 ° C.
One restaurant that became an important data point in the study was the historic Hotel Vancouver and its restaurant Notch8, a 10-minute walk from the waterfront in the city’s financial district. The researchers were able to find examples of hotel menus from the 1950s, 60s, 80s, 90s and today.