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More squid, less salmon — how climate change is impacting Vancouver's seafood menus

In with the squid, out with the salmon? UBC researchers tracked down menus from 362 Vancouver restaurants stretching from 1880 to 2021 to find out how climate change is affecting local restaurant menus.
Humboldt squid
Humboldt squid could become a restaurant staple in Vancouver as climate change offers the warmer waters the species prefers.

It’s Sunday, June 3, 1888, and you’ve just sat down for dinner at the Hotel Vancouver.

Outside, two recently installed Edison dynamos light up the city for the first time.

Elsewhere, whaling is big. Everywhere, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at 294 parts per million, nearly a third lower than current levels.

In Victoria, the capital’s newspaper warns water levels in the Fraser River are higher than at any time in the season. 

“It is still rising… salmon is scarce on the river,” notes a weekend dispatch from the Victoria Daily Times.

You order the fish. 

“Salmon a la Victoria, Pommes a la Duchese,” reads the menu. 

Typical B.C. fare, it's easy to think 141 years later.

Today, the location of the hotel has changed, its restaurant rebranded as Notch8.

“Those old menus, I remember them well. There was always salmon on there,” said Dennis Peckham, a former chef at Notch8 who now oversees eight local restaurants for the Glowbal Restaurant Group.

Not any more. Salmon is out. Roasted trout, cod and seared scallops are in, according to the restaurant's latest dinner menu.

“Today, we look at sustainability,” said Peckham. “Are we doing our part?” 

A link between Vancouver restaurant menus and climate change

As climate change warms many seas to the south, fish species are moving pole-ward in a migration never seen in modern times.

How those climate-triggered migrations impact the fishing industry has been well-documented. But few have linked the warming of local seas to the changing nature of what lands on our plate. 

Now, a new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia has set out to correct that. 

Published this week in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, researchers from the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries tracked down menus from 362 Vancouver restaurants stretching from 1880 to 2021. 

“Even if you are not catching fish or you are not related to the seafood sector, it affects our everyday life,” said institute director William Cheung, who co-authored the study with John-Paul Ng.

Their central question: have Vancouver’s fish and seafood menus changed with warming local seas?

Pulling old menus from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and the Vancouver Archives, the researchers documented all the locally caught species on offer throughout the decades.

Next, they matched each species with their preferred ocean temperatures. As Cheung put it, they took the “temperature of a seafood menu.” 

By comparing different time periods, they discovered the highest preferred temperature had climbed 3 C since 1880. The more the ocean has warmed, the more fishers caught warm-water fish, and the more they ended up on a restaurant’s menu.

Big questions remained. Was Vancouver an anomaly? Were restaurants in other cities adjusting their menu to the shift in locally available fish? 

To answer those questions, Cheung and Ng compared contemporary menus in restaurants in Anchorage, Alaska, and in Los Angeles, Calif. The pattern held. In Alaska, restaurants were serving more cold-water fish, and in L.A., more warm-water fish were on offer. 

As Cheung put it, they established a strong correlation between changing ocean temperatures and what fish dishes are found on local menus.

In with ‘the Blob,’ out with the salmon

Salmon once dominated our seas and seafood menus.

But in recent decades, a confluence of changing ocean temperatures, habitat destruction, overfishing, changing predator relationships, and disease have all taken their toll. 

Between 1980 and 2014, the Fraser River averaged 9.6 million sockeye returns annually, with up to 28 million one year. 

By 2020, salmon returning to the Fraser River fell to an all-time record low of 293,000. 

According to Cheung, the biggest shift in menu offerings was seen between the periods 1981-1996 and 2019-2021, the latter coming after the arrival of extreme marine heat waves known as ‘the Blob.’

As cold waters migrate north, others have started to fill the void left behind.

In the early 1990s, Humboldt squid suddenly started to appear on local menus as the species expanded its territory into B.C. waters, said Cheung.

Where some species have gained traction on local menus, the Pacific sardine, once a popular menu item before the 1950s, disappeared as its stocks were decimated by overfishing in B.C. 

Such declines, however, are not always a dead end.

“Sardines are a warm-water species, so we expect our waters will become more favourable to them and their populations will come back,” said Cheung.

That’s good news for Peckham, who places both squid and sardines high on his priorities of culinary ingredients — along with octopus caught as bycatch that would otherwise go to waste.

“Humbolt squid, we already use,” he said. “Sardines would be very high on the list… I love sardines. I used to use them in California quite a bit.” 

'It affects your everyday life'

Populations of popular fish like Albacore tuna could also increasingly spend more time in B.C.’s warming waters. Others — iconic species like sockeye salmon — face an uncertain future.

“Some of the species, we take them for granted,” said Cheung, pointing to the impact climate change is having on sockeye. “Even if you are not catching fish or you are not related to the seafood sector, it affects our everyday life.”

“Those culinary cultures might need to be adjusted.”

Cheung is careful to point out that his study did not take into account how Vancouver’s shifting demographics have driven demand for different kinds of seafood over the years. 

“The restaurants, especially in Metro Vancouver, are increasingly mindful about serving sustainable seafood,” said Cheung. “We want to see if those seafood menus have a lower carbon footprint.” 

The researchers are also planning to investigate how a culinary culture focused on sustainability but constrained by supply chains and rising prices will adapt.  

Peckham, who is about to open another San Francisco-style seafood and chop house — this time in Toronto — says it’s already a tough balance. Seafood prices have surged in recent years, a trend he says is made worse by large-scale export to Asian markets. 

Still, sustainability will remain at the core of what his restaurants do. It’s what his customers want, he says.

“There are some beautiful fish available to us at all times from Hawaii,” said Peckham. “But it’s easier to tell a story when it’s local.”