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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. In the early to mid-1900s, Hawaii was a far-away, exotic travel destination. People who managed to get there often kept mementos of that journey, including, as it happens, menus from Hawaiian restaurants--places like Trader Vic's and Prince Kuhio's. Good thing they did. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, those old menus are serving a scientific purpose.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Ecologist Kyle van Houtan went to Hawaii to study sea turtles. He wanted to know where they ended up. In a shark's belly, or as turtle soup? One day he got one of those lightning-bolt ideas - maybe turtle would show on old restaurant menus? So he collected 500 menus.

KYLE VAN HOUTAN: People had just kept them because they were beautiful, kept them because they were memorabilia of Grandma and Grandpa's trip to Hawaii in 1915.

JOYCE: Van Houtan also got menus from galleries, a museum, even the Las Vegas public library. Many were dated from the early 1900s to the present. And he found no turtle on the menus - ever. But van Houtan discovered something else quite unexpected. After World War II, a lot of the locally caught fish, bottom feeding fish and reef fish, fish that live close to shore, started to disappear from menus.

HOUTAN: Fish like snapper and flounder and grouper, they really took a nosedive.

JOYCE: Van Houtan used fisheries data, as well, combined with his menus, to calculate that local fish numbers dropped to about a tenth of what they once were.

HOUTAN: These are very desirable fish. They used to be on the menus. We see them on there in the 1930s and 1940s but they're not on any of the menus today.

JOYCE: By the 1960s, swanky eateries like the Tropics or the Kemoo Farm had replaced local fish with deep ocean fish, like tuna and swordfish. Or Maine lobster, flown in from the mainland, washed down with 85-cent martinis. Not that there weren't still some quirky island offerings. Apparently, people couldn't get enough of pickled onions.

HOUTAN: You know, you might expect a pickled onion in a cocktail but not a whole plate of pickled onions as an appetizer, perhaps; fried pineapple fritters with mint sauce.

JOYCE: The arcane appetizers might have made for fun reading, but there was real scientific value in this fish forensics. Official fisheries records in Hawaii were nonexistent until about 1950, and pretty spotty for years after. Van Houtan was able to chronicle a crash in local fisheries and a shift to deep ocean fish.

While changing tastes might have also played a role, clearly something -overfishing, or pollution or both - had hurt local fish populations. Van Houtan published his findings in a journal, Frontiers in Ecology. One of his coauthors is Loren McClenachan, an environmental scientist at Colby College in Maine. She did similar research on Caribbean fisheries, based on diaries.

LOREN MCCLENACHAN: Travelers mostly, so early natural history diaries. I used a published diary of a pirate who traveled around the Caribbean in the 1600s.

JOYCE: McClenachan says other scientists are calling them now with ideas on how to mine menus for more information.

MCCLENACHAN: For example, changes in price and I think this could provide more information on rarity. So, for example, did things get more expensive before they disappeared?

JOYCE: If that's the case, then the Hawaiian beachside cocktail may be headed for extinction. That 85-cent martini in 1969 is now $14 in Waikiki. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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