Earlier this year, Greenpeace tried to inject a little reality - and some humor - into a meeting of U.S. fisheries managers. Our "waiters" distributed a menu of what's missing to managers from NOAA Fisheries, the three multi-state fisheries commissions, and the eight regional fisheries councils. In the midst of a lot or self-congratulatory back-slapping, we used the menus to remind fisheries regulators that all is not well in the oceans.

Now, researchers at the University of New Hampshire have joined with scientists from Denmark and the U.K. to use menus to look at how fish stocks have changed over the past several hundred years. As reported in Nature, The History of Marine Animal Populations project "is drawing on sources such as monastery records of fishing hauls, taxes paid by fishermen to landowners, and even the discarded
papers of an Australian trawler company, retrieved from a rubbish dump.

The restaurant study looks at data from some 10,000 archived restaurant
menus in traditional US seafood towns such as Boston, San Francisco and
Providence in Rhode Island. After adjusting for inflation, the rises in
price of delicacies such as oysters reflect their growing scarcity as
fishermen strive to keep up with demand."

The HMAP project should be invaluable in countering the problem of shifting baselines, the idea that we tend to use far too limited of a timeline to judge how much things have changed. Instead of comparing cod, menhaden, or other important fish stocks to what they were ten or twenty years ago, we can get a much clearer picture of the costs of overfishing by looking back to the early days of fishing.

In the late 1800s, Andres Dumas said that if there were any more cod, one could walk across the Atlantic on their backs. I wonder what Monsieur Dumas would say today?

...or, for that matter, whether our fisheries managers would listen?

John H