The dynamics of fish populations at low abundance and prospects for rebuilding and recovery

Ray Hilborn, Daniel J. Hively, Olaf P. Jensen, Trevor A. Branch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Previous meta-analysis of spawner-recruit relationships suggested that depensatory behaviour is uncommon, and stocks pushed to low abundance are unlikely to suffer decreases in recruitment more severe than would be expected based on the decline in spawning stock. Using an updated database that has over 100 stocks that were depleted to less than 20% of their maximum observed stock size, we tested for depensatory behaviour in both total surplus production and recruitment and we also examined the probability of stock increase as a function of stock size and fishing pressure. The number of stocks that showed a significant improvement with depensatory models was less than that expected by chance. Hierarchical meta-analysis showed that the majority of the evidence was for no depensatory behaviour but could not rule out depensation at very low stock sizes. Stocks that are depleted to low abundance are expected to rebuild when fishing pressure is reduced if the environment has not changed but there is considerable evidence that the majority of fish stocks are impacted by changes in productivity regimes. Nevertheless, if stocks are very heavily depleted and fishing pressure is not reduced to quite low levels, the expected recovery time is both uncertain and long. Very low abundance should clearly be avoided for many reasons and the range of abundance where depensation cannot be ruled out is well below commonly adopted limit reference points.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2141-2151
Number of pages11
JournalICES Journal of Marine Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology


  • Depensation
  • low density dynamic
  • rebuilding
  • recovery
  • regime changes

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