A major mid-1980s shift in ecological structure of significant portions of the Southern Ocean was partially due to the serial depletion of fish by intensive industrial fishing, rather than solely to climate factors as previously hypothesized. Over a brief period (1969–1973), several finfish stocks were on average reduced to <50%, and finally (mid-1980s) to <20%, of original size. Despite management actions, few stocks have recovered and some are still declining. Most affected species exhibit K-selected life-history patterns, and before exploitation presumably fluctuated in accordance with infrequent strong year classes, as is true of such fish elsewhere. A climate regime, the Southern Annular Mode, once oscillated between two states, but has remained in its ‘positive mode’ since the time of the fish extraction. This may have increased finfish vulnerability to exploitation. As breeding stocks decreased, we hypothesize that availability of annually produced juvenile fish fed upon by upper-level predators remained low. Correlations between predator populations and fish biomass in predator foraging areas indicate that southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina, Antarctic fur seal Arctocephalus gazella, gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua, macaroni penguin Eudyptes chrysolphus and ‘imperial’ shag Phalacrocorax spp. – all feeding extensively on these fish, and monitored at Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, South Georgia, South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, where fishing was concentrated – declined simultaneously during the two periods of heavy fishing. These patterns indicate the past importance of demersal fish as prey in Antarctic marine systems, but determining these interactions’ ecological mechanisms may now be impossible.