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Analyzing fisheries-induced evolution

Overfishing not only reduces the size of fish populations, it can alter their actual gene pool. In 1998 IIASA began  

researching fisheries-induced evolution with the aim of i) developing methodological tools to evaluate the evolutionary 

and ecological consequences of overfishing and ii) using resulting insights to identify evolutionarily sustainable 

management strategies.

Pressure from large-scale commercial fishing, and intense 

recreational and sport fishing, is accelerating evolution in 

some fish populations and threatening the sustainability 

of fisheries. IIASA research on exploitation-induced 

evolution has assembled evidence that human exploitation 

not only changes the abundance of targeted fish  

populations over time, but also alters their heritable 

traits. Exploited fish populations worldwide are tending 

to start reproducing at an earlier age and smaller size. In 

some populations this reduces fish biomass; in others it 

increases resilience to fishing. In either case, fisheries- 

induced evolution changes a stock’s productivitiy, stability 

to collapse, and recovery potential.

International collaboration

IIASA and an international network of collaborating experts 

are analyzing the major causes of fisheries-induced 

evolution, including its ecological and socioeconomic 

consequences. The work, which includes development 

of models for strategic and tactical evaluations of  

exploited fish stocks, is coordinated through the 

Working Group on Fisheries-Induced Evolution (WGEVO) 

of the International Council for the Exploration of the  

Sea (ICES), co-chaired by IIASA scientists. Work covers  

the Barents Sea adjacent to Norway and Russia, the 

North Sea and Baltic Sea, an Austrian mountain  

lake, the coastal seas of China, waters off Iceland, 

Newfoundland, and New England, and rivers in Alaska 

and Québec.

In recent years, IIASA research has been broadened 

through the European Marie Curie Research Training  

Networks ModLife (Modern Life History and Its Application 

to the Management of Natural Resources) and FishACE 

(Fisheries-induced Adaptive Change in Exploited Stocks) 

and the European Union-funded Specific Targeted  

Research Project FinE (Fisheries-induced Evolution).

Further information:

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•  The groundbreaking IIASA work on fisheries-induced evolution has attracted 

the close attention of policy bodies like ICES, the main advisory agency for 

managing the North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas. The extension by ICES 

of the WGEVO expert group for a second three-year term is an endorsement 

that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

• IIASA is pioneering the development of Evolutionary Impact Assessments 

(EvoIAs) to allow fisheries managers to assess the evolutionary status of fish 

populations they oversee. In particular, IIASA has driven the development of 

an EvoIA for North Sea plaice, the first of its kind, published in 2012. Another 

new framework will identify fisheries management options that are acceptable 

to diverse stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishers,  

fisheries managers, policymakers, businesses, and the public. The ultimate 

goal is to produce a “traffic light” indicator system for communicating the 

evolutionary vulnerability of commercially exploited fish stocks.

• IIASA has led research into the economic repercussions of fisheries- 

induced evolution which shows that genetic changes induced by fishing 

can sometimes be beneficial when fish populations are exploited with  

restraint, whereas with heavy exploitation, predominant worldwide,  

fisheries-induced evolution tends to reduce yields and revenues.

•  The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive uses the method developed at 

IIASA to help disentangle genetic and phenotypically plastic changes in fish 

life histories. The method has been incorporated into the Data Collection 

Framework Regulation: the 2009 Commission Decision C (2009) 10121 on 

“the collection, management and use of data in the fisheries sector” explicitly 

specifies “size at maturation of exploited fish species” as an “indicator of the 

potential ‘genetic effects’ on a population.” The IIASA method has also been 

incorporated into the 2010 Commission Decision C(2010) 5956 on “criteria 

and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine  


International Institute for

Applied Systems Analysis



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