Menu Prices and Abundance

Analyzing menu prices for popular seafood items can help researchers validate indications of fishery resource abundance through time.

Around the world, most scientists agree that many commercially exploited fishery resources are in decline. As a result, increasing concern is being expressed that fishing effort should be decreased or redirected and that fishery management efforts should employ alternative tools. The information that we rely on to indicate the health of our seafood resources is almost exclusively based on estimates of abundance and changes in abundance over time. These data, together with indices of fisheries effort are used to model the effect that our harvest has on fish stocks and to predict how best to manage this stock. However, relatively little attention has historically been paid to the role of consumer demand on the business of fishing.

Simple economics relates that fishermen will not land a product for which there is little demand; it is simply an unprofitable endeavor. Further, fishermen will tend to pursue species that are in high demand by comsumers, as these species will command higher market prices. As a result, high demand can either create a shortage of the resource by over harvesting or it can reflect scarcity in the cases where a limited or rare resource is in higher demand as a luxury item or symbol of status. In either case, the result is typically higher consumer prices.

Dr. Glenn Jones, of Texas A&M University and a contributor to the Ocean's Past Conference sponsored by the History of Marine Animal Populations project of the Census of Marine Life, has devised a novel method of tracking demand for a seafood resource through time - the analysis of restaurant menus. Menus came into common use in the United States in the 1850s, and thus, can provide information on consumer demand for certain seafood products further back in time than most modern data sets (which typically only go back as far as the 1950s). Menus that contain the correct set of information for his analysis (i.e. - prices, dates, and clear indications of the seafood type/species) are used to develop average consumer prices for a seafood item at a given point in time. The increase or decline of the price over time can then be compared to the Consumer Price Index. By comparing the rate of change in seafood prices and the rate of inflation, Jones was able to relate the demand for the product to the relative abundance of the stock.

Of the several species that this work examines, the canvasback duck, the abalone, and the American lobster provide clear examples of how this method works. The canvasback duck was relatively abundant in the late 1800s, and the demand for this delicacy was quite high. The growth rate of price for canvasback duck far outpaced the rate of inflation indicating that demand for the product remained high (inflating the price) while the supply continued to fall. The study of California abalone shows how price shifts as pressure on the stock shifts. In this case, the pressure on the stock remained relatively static in the early 1900s. However, after the Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915 the popularity of the product rose sharply. Since that time, price growth rates have outpaced inflation consistently as supplies of the product dwindled to the point that commercial harvest of abalone was outlawed in California in 1997. In the case of the American lobster, commercial landings and wholesale price information is available back to the 1880s. These are used to test the validity of the menu price analysis method of indicating relative abundance with positive results.

This research emphasizes the role that the end consumer plays in the exploitation, and in some cases overexploitation, of seafood products. It is important to highlight this relationship as it usually consumer choice and willingness to pay that drive fishermen to continue pursuing a scarce resource, often beyond sustainability. By understanding this relationship, fishery managers and conservation groups can begin to socialize the prudent purchase of sustainable seafood. This may prove to be an increasingly important management tool as our world fisheries continue to decline.

  • What: Analyzing menu prices for popular seafood items can help researchers validate indications of resource abundance through time.
  • Who: HMAP Scientist/Contributor --> Glenn A. Jones
  • When: 2001-2007
  • Where: N/A
  • How: Analysis of historical data and documents
  • References: Compilation of this work and publication is currently in process.