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The economics of reversing fisheries-induced evolution


Fisheries management typically considers short planning horizons that stand in contrast to long-term sustainability and biodiversity targets, especially when evolutionary timescales play a role. Many fish stocks globally have been exploited above sustainable levels, causing fisheries-induced evolution towards smaller maturation sizes, lower growth rates and lower economic value of individual fish. Here we couple economic decision-making with eco-evolutionary fish population dynamics to explore (1) the impact of alternative planning horizons in profit-maximizing fisheries management on evolution and (2) the trade-off between profit and a set conservation target. We find that evolutionary decline is reversed only under century-long planning horizons. With more typical short-term planning, stock recovery in terms of biomass is achieved, but evolutionary decline continues, albeit at much lower rates. Setting conservation targets for genetic traits only slightly reduces profits, and the trade-off is further alleviated if the fishery can select for genotypes and thereby assist evolutionary reversal. Sustainability goals and biodiversity targets call for restoring not only fish stocks but also their genetic diversity, implying the reversal of fisheries-induced evolution. We show that economic incentives alone may not be sufficient to achieve these sustainability goals.

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Fig. 1: Stock and maturation size decline and recovery over time.
Fig. 2: Evolutionary decline and reversal.
Fig. 3: Trade-off between economic profitability and evolutionary conservation.

Data availability

ICES SMALK (Sex Maturity Age Length Key) data are available at, and the ICES North Sea cod report is available at BLE data are available at The STECF report is available at

Code availability

The optimization code is available at


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This work was funded by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle–Jena–Leipzig (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation)–FZT 118, 202548816 (H.S. and M.Q.)), the Belmont Forum and biodiversa project SOMBEE (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation)–QU 357/12-1 (H.S. and M.Q.)) and the Norges Forskningsråd (Research Council of Norway)–BESTEMT 324159 (F.Z.). We would like to thank the DFG Research Training Group for Translational Evolutionary Research transevo (Graduiertenkolleg GRK 2501), colleagues from iDiv, the Theoretical Ecology Group Bergen, the Research Group of Environmental and Resource Economics Tromsø, the ENE (Energy, Natural Resources and Environment) Seminar at NHH (Norwegian School of Economics) Bergen; and participants at the conferences WCNRM 2020 (World Conference on Natural Resource Modeling), SIAM conference 2021 (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics), ICES annual science conference 2021 (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), SURED 2022 (Monte Verità Conference on Sustainable Resource Use and Economic Dynamics) and EAERE 2022 (European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists) for helpful discussions and comments.

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Authors and Affiliations



Conceptualization: M.Q., F.Z. and H.S. Data curation, formal analysis, validation and visualization: H.S. Funding acquisition, supervision and resources: M.Q. Methodology: H.S., F.Z. and M.Q. Writing: H.S., F.Z. and M.Q.

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Correspondence to Hanna Schenk.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Andries Richter and Eric Palkovacs for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Mathematical model, Methods, Figs. S1–S7 and Tables S1 and S2.

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Schenk, H., Zimmermann, F. & Quaas, M. The economics of reversing fisheries-induced evolution. Nat Sustain (2023).

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