1. An understanding of the links between life histories and responses to exploitation could provide the basis for predicting shifts in community structure by identifying susceptible species and linking life-history tactics with population dynamics.
2. We examined long-term trends in the abundance of species in the North Sea bottom-dwelling (demersal) fish community. Between 1925 & 1996 changes in species composition led to an increase in mean growth rate, while mean maximum size, age at maturity and size at maturity decreased. The demersal fish community was increasingly heavily fished during this period.
3. Trends in mean life-history characteristics of the community were linked to trends in abundance of component species. An approach based on phylogenetic comparisons was used to examine the differential effects of fishing on individual species with contrasting life histories.
4. Those species that decreased in abundance relative to their nearest relative, matured later at a greater size, grew more slowly towards a greater maximum size and had lower rates of potential population increase. The phylogenetically based analyses demonstrated that trends in community structure could be predicted from the differential responses of related species to fishing.
5. This is the first study to link exploitation responses of an entire community to the life histories of individual species. The results demonstrate that fishing has greater effects on slower growing, larger species with later maturity and lower rates of potential population increase. The comparative approach provides a basis for predicting structural change in other exploited communities.