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

saw prices fall with the Great Depression, but they ballooned in the 1950s, with restaurants pricing lobsters at one-quarter pound (113 gram) weight increments, another reflection of declining supplies, says Dr. Jones.

"It's interesting on menus today to see the appearance of four and five pound (1.8 to 2.3 kilo) lobsters," he notes. "There is little chance those are coming from the inshore fisheries, which are so heavily fished a lobster is sent to market as soon as it's up to weight. What it indicates to me is the opening up of new deep areas on the outer continental shelf, 200 miles (322 km) offshore."

Among other observations gained from the archived menus: oyster prices remained relatively flat for some 100 years, then climbed at twice the inflation rate starting in the 1950s.

And the price of a wild canvasback duck meal rose from today's equivalent of $20 in the 1860s to $100 in 1910 as stocks collapsed. Professional hunters harvested up to 1,000 per day to supply restaurants, says Dr. Jones, fostering the federal government's decision to outlaw the commercial slaughter of migratory birds in 1913.

"As supplies dropped and prices rose, some of these species became a status symbol. It seems to confirm that many people simply want to eat something that is rare."

Some 200,000 restaurant menus have been uncovered by the research team in various archives, primarily in New England. Of these, many are banquet menus showing only the food served; Dr. Jones estimates just 10,000 include the date, city and prices.

Yet to be done is a sorting of five-star versus two-star restaurants, which Dr. Jones says will narrow the price spread in a given year but will not diminish the trends seen overall (plotted on several preliminary charts, appended). "When you think about it, a menu was a piece of ephemera it wasn't meant to be saved but thankfully some people collected them. We believe this is the first time anyone has tried to wo
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Source:Census of Marine Life


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