Resilience and tipping points of an exploited fish population over six decades

Paraskevas Vasilakopoulos*, C. Tara Marshall

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


Complex natural systems with eroded resilience, such as populations, ecosystems and socio-ecological systems, respond to small perturbations with abrupt, discontinuous state shifts, or critical transitions. Theory of critical transitions suggests that such systems exhibit fold bifurcations featuring folded response curves, tipping points and alternate attractors. However, there is little empirical evidence of fold bifurcations occurring in actual complex natural systems impacted by multiple stressors. Moreover, resilience of complex systems to change currently lacks clear operational measures with generic application. Here, we provide empirical evidence for the occurrence of a fold bifurcation in an exploited fish population and introduce a generic measure of ecological resilience based on the observed fold bifurcation attributes. We analyse the multivariate development of Barents Sea cod (Gadus morhua), which is currently the world's largest cod stock, over six decades (1949-2009), and identify a population state shift in 1981. By plotting a multivariate population index against a multivariate stressor index, the shift mechanism was revealed suggesting that the observed population shift was a nonlinear response to the combined effects of overfishing and climate change. Annual resilience values were estimated based on the position of each year in relation to the fitted attractors and assumed tipping points of the fold bifurcation. By interpolating the annual resilience values, a folded stability landscape was fit, which was shaped as predicted by theory. The resilience assessment suggested that the population may be close to another tipping point. This study illustrates how a multivariate analysis, supported by theory of critical transitions and accompanied by a quantitative resilience assessment, can clarify shift mechanisms in data-rich complex natural systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1834-1847
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number5
Early online date6 Feb 2015
Publication statusPublished - May 2015


  • alternate states
  • Barents Sea cod
  • basins of attraction
  • fold bifurcation
  • Gadus morhua
  • hysteresis
  • resilience assessment
  • state shift
  • cod Gadus-Morhua
  • Northeast Arctic Cod
  • social-ecological systems
  • alternative stable states
  • large marine ecosystem
  • coral-reef resilience
  • early-warning signals
  • regime shifts
  • crtitical transitions
  • climate-change


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