Fisheries‐induced Evolution


Modern fisheries have drastically changed the level and size dependence of mortality faced by fish populations: commercial fishing usually targets medium‐sized and large individuals, which often are relatively invulnerable to natural predators. Life‐history theory predicts that fish adapt to these changes through evolutionary alterations in their life histories. Experiments and models predict that such fisheries‐induced evolution is potentially fast: significant evolutionary adaptations may occur over time scales of just a few generations. A growing body of observational studies of wild fish populations is supporting this theoretical prediction. So far, fisheries‐induced changes in maturation schedules are best documented, but several studies are also pointing to changes in growth and reproductive investment. Although fisheries‐induced evolution can render fish populations more robust against high exploitation levels, uncontrolled fisheries‐induced evolution is likely to reduce both the quality and the quantity of fisheries yields, calling for management strategies that can mitigate such undesirable effects.

Key concepts:

  • Fisheries management: Management of fish resources for the common good, typically by restricting the quantity and quality (e.g. size) of fish captured directly or indirectly, by restrictions to fishing methods and areas and times when fishing is permitted.

  • Precautionary principle: A principle according to which uncertainty should not be used as a reason for postponing mitigating management measures when the absence of such measures would risk severe and unrecoverable damage to the environment or human well‐being.

  • Life‐history theory: Evolutionary theory predicting how life histories are expected to be shaped by the ambient environment. Predictions often focus on key life‐history traits such as maturation, growth, and reproductive investment, and thus on the main determinants of an individual's expected reproductive success.

  • Fisheries‐induced evolution: Genetic change of the population‐level distribution of heritable characteristics of individuals, with mortality caused by fishing as the selective agent driving the change.

  • Fisheries‐induced adaptive change: Change of the population‐level distribution of phenotypic characteristics of individuals, caused by fishing and reflecting both genetic changes and changes due to adaptive phenotypic plasticity.

  • Phenotypic change: Change of the population‐level distribution of phenotypic characteristics of individuals. Although such changes are often observed readily and unambiguously, the challenge is to disentangle genetic changes from other changes and fisheries‐induced causes from other causes.

  • Probabilistic maturation reaction norm: A conceptual and statistical tool accounting for the effects of growth conditions on maturation. This tool has helped to establish that maturation changes widely observed in exploited fish stocks can usually not be explained by changes in growth conditions alone. Once this major component of maturation plasticity has thus been isolated from the total phenotypic change in maturation, potentially remaining maturation changes must have other explanations, among which fisheries‐induced evolution often appears as being the most parsimonious.

Keywords: contemporary evolution; exploitation; fishing; life‐history theory; natural resource management

Figure 1.

Estimated age‐dependent profiles of mortality for Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in the North Sea from fishing, in comparison to predation and other natural causes. Adding fishing mortality implies that the probability of surviving from 3 to 12 years is 0.02%. Without fishing, that survival probability would be 47%. Data from ICES .



Dieckmann U and Heino M (2007) Probabilistic maturation reaction norms: their history, strengths, and limitations. Marine Ecology Progress Series 335: 253–269.

Heino M and Dieckmann U (2008) Detecting fisheries‐induced life‐history evolution: an overview of the reaction norm approach. Bulletin of Marine Science 83: 69–93.

Heino M, Dieckmann U and Godø OR (2002) Measuring probabilistic reaction norms for age and size at maturation. Evolution 56: 669–678.

Heino M and Godø OR (2002) Fisheries‐induced selection pressures in the context of sustainable fisheries. Bulletin of Marine Science 70: 639–656.

Hutchings JA and Baum JK (2005) Measuring marine fish biodiversity: temporal changes in abundance, life history, and demography. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 360: 315–338.

ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) (1997) Report of the Multispecies Assessment Working Group. ICES CM 1997/Assess. 16. ICES, Copenhagen.

Jørgensen C, Enberg K, Dunlop ES et al. (2007) Managing evolving fish stocks. Science 318: 1247–1248.

Law R (2000) Fishing, selection, and phenotypic evolution. ICES Journal of Marine Science 57: 659–668.

Law R and Grey DR (1989) Evolution of yields from populations with age‐specific cropping. Evolutionary Ecology 3: 343–359.

Rijnsdorp AD (1993) Fisheries as a large‐scale experiment on life‐history evolution: disentangling phenotypic and genetic effects in changes in maturation and reproduction of North Sea plaice, Pleuronectes platessa L. Oecologia 96: 391–401.

Trippel EA (1995) Age at maturity as stress indicator in fisheries. BioScience 45: 759–771.

UN (The United Nations) (1992) Convention on biological diversity. UNEP/CBD/COP/5/23, Annex III.

Further Reading

Allendorf FW, England PR, Luikart G, Ritchie PA and Ryman N (2008) Genetic effects of harvest on wild animal populations. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23: 327–337.

Browman HI (ed.) (2000) ‘Evolution’ of fisheries science. Marine Ecology Progress Series 208: 299–313.

Conover DO and Munch SB (2002) Sustaining fisheries yields over evolutionary time scales. Science 297: 94–96.

Dunlop ES, Heino M and Dieckmann U (2009) Eco‐genetic modeling of contemporary life‐history evolution. Ecological Applications (in press).

ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) (2007) Report of the Study Group on Fisheries‐Induced Adaptive Change (SGFIAC) 26 February–2 March, Lisbon, Portugal. ICES CM 2007/RMC:03. ICES, Copenhagen.

Kuparinen A and Merilä J (2007) Detecting and managing fisheries‐induced evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22: 652–659.

Olsen EM, Heino M, Lilly GR et al. (2004) Maturation trends indicative of rapid evolution preceded the collapse of northern cod. Nature 428: 932–935.

Stokes TK, McGlade JM and Law R (eds) (1993) The Evolution of Exploited Resources. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Swain DP, Sinclair AF and Hanson JM (2007) Evolutionary response to size‐selective mortality in an exploited fish population. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 274: 1015–1022.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Heino, Mikko, and Dieckmann, Ulf(Sep 2009) Fisheries‐induced Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021213]