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Restaurant seafood prices since 1850s help plot marine harvests through history

Seafood prices collected from U.S. restaurant menus dating to the 1850s will help plot the shifting harvest of marine species, according to a study to be announced at Oceans Past a Census of Marine Life conference in Denmark on the History of Marine Animal Populations.

Led by paleo-oceanographer Glenn Jones at Texas A&M University at Galveston, researchers are charting over 150 years of inflation-adjusted seafood prices from menus, most from cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. The menus shed light on shifting tastes for and supplies of such popular seafood as lobster, swordfish, abalone, oysters, halibut, haddock and sole.

Though still at an early stage, the research already shows a dramatic rise in the price of abalone coincident with the collapse of stocks along the California coast.

San Francisco menus, which started to feature the slow-growing mollusk in the 1920s, document that the inflation-adjusted price of an abalone meal held steady at about $7 (in 2004 currency) for roughly 20 years.

The price spiked sharply in the 1930s as the species was over-harvested and again in the 1950s, since which time the price has risen 7 to 10 times faster than inflation. California banned commercial abalone fishing in 1997 and most supplies in state restaurants today are imported from Australia and New Zealand, priced on menus at $50 to $70.

Similarly, the restaurant price of lobster has tracked its fluctuating abundance and popularity over the decades, according to Dr. Jones.

"Prior to the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus at all except in bargain-priced lobster salad," he says. "It was considered a trash fish no one wanted -- it was not something you'd want to be seen eating. In fact, in Colonial America, servants negotiated agreements that they not be forced to eat lobster more than twice a week."

Tastes started to change in the 1880s, with lobsters even appearing on menu covers. The 1930s
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Source:Census of Marine Life


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