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Keywords:

  • age and size at maturity;
  • Atlantic cod;
  • fisheries-induced evolution;
  • life history;
  • natural mortality;
  • probabilistic maturation reaction norm;
  • stock collapse;
  • stock recovery

Abstract

Fisheries-induced evolution has been hypothesized to delay the recovery of collapsed fish stocks through effects on their productivity. The cod stock in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (SGSL) collapsed in the early 1990s and has shown no recovery since then, due mainly to high natural mortality of adult cod. Age and size at maturation of SGSL cod decreased sharply over time in cohorts produced in the 1950s and 1960s, likely reflecting an evolutionary response to intensified fishing, and have remained low since then, despite severe reductions in fishing mortality over the past 15 years. A predicted consequence of early maturation is increased natural mortality due to higher costs to reproduction. Early maturation may be a cause of increases in natural mortality of SGSL cod in the 1970s but does not appear to be related to the much larger increases since then. Instead, the current high natural mortality of SGSL cod appears to be primarily a cause, rather than a consequence, of the continued early maturation in this population, now replacing fishing mortality as the agent of selection favouring early maturity. This striking example of the failure to reverse fisheries-induced evolution by relaxing fishing pressure emphasizes the need for management strategies that minimize the chances of harvest-induced genetic change.