Rapid declines threaten the persistence of many marine fish. Data from more than 230 populations reveal a median reduction of 83% in breeding population size from known historic levels. Few populations recover rapidly; most exhibit little or no change in abundance up to 15 years after a collapse. Reductions in fishing pressure, although clearly necessary for population recovery, are often insufficient. Persistence and recovery are also influenced by life history, habitat alteration, changes to species assemblages, genetic responses to exploitation, and reductions in population growth attributable to the Allee effect, also known as depensation. Heightened extinction risks were highlighted recently when a Canadian population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) was listed as endangered, on the basis of declines as high as 99.9% over 30 years. Unprecedented reductions in abundance and surprisingly low rates of recovery draw attention to scientists' limited understanding of how fish behavior, habitat, ecology, and evolution affect population growth at low abundance. Failure to prevent population collapses, and to take the conservation biology of marine fishes seriously, will ensure that many severely depleted species remain ecological and numerical shadows in the ecosystems that they once dominated.
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