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Collapse and recovery of marine fishes


Over-exploitation and subsequent collapse of marine fishes has focused attention on the ability of affected populations to recover to former abundance levels1,2,3 and on the degree to which their persistence is threatened by extinction4,5. Although potential for recovery has been assessed indirectly1, actual changes in population size following long-term declines have not been examined empirically. Here I show that there is very little evidence for rapid recovery from prolonged declines, in contrast to the perception that marine fishes are highly resilient to large population reductions6,7. With the possible exception of herring and related species that mature early in life and are fished with highly selective equipment, my analysis of 90 stocks reveals that many gadids (for example, cod, haddock) and other non-clupeids (for example, flatfishes) have experienced little, if any, recovery as much as 15 years after 45–99% reductions in reproductive biomass. Although the effects of overfishing on single species may generally be reversible1, the actual time required for recovery appears to be considerable. To exempt marine fishes from existing criteria used to assign extinction risk6,7 would be inconsistent with precautionary approaches to fisheries management and the conservation of marine biodiversity.

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Figure 1: Bivariate association between population decline and subsequent population size for 90 marine fish stocks.
Figure 2: Population recovery within and among six families of marine fishes 5 (triangles), 10 (filled triangles) and 15 (stars) years after the greatest proportionate 15-year decline experienced by each stock.
Figure 3: Population recovery of marine fishes 10 (upper panel) and 15 years (lower panel) after the greatest proportionate 15-year decline experienced by each stock.


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This work was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Research Grant. I thank B. Hall, I. McLaren, J. Shepherd and D. Swain for their helpful comments on previous versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey A. Hutchings.

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Hutchings, J. Collapse and recovery of marine fishes. Nature 406, 882–885 (2000).

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