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Biol Lett. 2008 Dec 23;4(6):693-5. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0443.

The dangers of ignoring stock complexity in fishery management: the case of the North Sea cod.

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  • 1Evolutionary Biology Group, University of Hull, Hull HU6 7RX, UK.


The plight of the marine fisheries is attracting increasing attention as unsustainably high exploitation levels, exacerbated by more extreme climatic conditions, are driving stocks to the point of collapse. The North Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), a species which until recently formed a major component of the demersal fisheries, has undergone significant declines across its range. The North Sea stock is typical of many, with a spawning stock biomass that has remained below the safe biological limit since 2000 and recruitment levels near the lowest on record. Cod within the North Sea are currently managed as a single stock, and yet mounting empirical evidence supports the existence of a metapopulation of regionally variable, genetically distinct, sub-stocks. Applying the same management strategies to multiple stocks that differ in their resilience to exploitation inevitably results in the overfishing and likely collapse of the weaker components. Indeed, recent studies have identified two North Sea spawning stocks that have undergone disproportionally large collapses with very substantial reductions in egg production. Similarly affected cod stocks in the northwest Atlantic have shown little evidence of recovery, despite fishery closures. The possible implications of ignoring sub-structuring within management units for biocomplexity, local adaptation and ecosystem stability are considered.

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