Marine social–ecological systems consist of interactive ecological and human social elements so that changes in ecological systems affect fishing-dependent societies and vice versa. This study compares the responses of marine ecological and fishing-dependent systems to environmental change and the impacts of globalization, using four case-studies: NE Atlantic (Barents Sea), NW Atlantic (Newfoundland), SE Atlantic (Namibia) and the equatorial Atlantic (Ghana). Marine ecological systems cope with short-time changes by altering migration and distribution patterns, changing species composition, and changing diets and growth rates; over the longer term, adaptive changes lead to increased turn-over rates and changes in the structure and function of the system. Fishing communities cope with short-term change through intensification and diversification of fishing, migration and ‘riding out the storm’. Over the longer term, adaptive changes in policy and fisheries governance can interact with social–ecological change to focus on new fisheries, economic diversification, re-training, out-migration and community closures. Marine social–ecological systems can ultimately possess rapid adaptive capacity in their ecological components, but reduced adaptive capacity in society. Maintaining the diversity of response capabilities on short and longer time scales, among both ecological and human fishing systems, should be a key policy objective. The challenge is to develop robust governance approaches for coupled marine social–ecological systems that can respond to short- and long-term consequences of global change.