Despite increasing evidence that current exploitation rates can contribute to shifts in life-history traits and the collapse of marine fish stocks, few empirical studies have investigated the likely evolutionary impacts. Here, we used DNA recovered from a temporal series of archived North Sea cod (Gadus morhua) otoliths, to investigate genetic diversity within the Flamborough Head population between 1954 and 1998, during which time the population underwent two successive declines. Microsatellite data indicated a significant reduction in genetic diversity between 1954 and 1970 (total number of alleles: 1954, 46; 1960, 42; 1970, 37), and a subsequent recovery between 1970 and 1998 (total number of alleles: 1970, 37; 1981, 42; 1998, 45). Furthermore, estimates of genetic differentiation (F(ST) and R(ST)) showed a significant divergence between 1998 and earlier samples. Data are consistent with a period of prolonged genetic drift, accompanied by a replacement of the Flamborough Head population through an increased effective migration rate that occurred during a period of high exploitation and appreciable demographic and phenotypic change. Other studies indicate that diversity at neutral microsatellite loci may be correlated with variability at selected genes, thus compromising a population's subsequent recovery and adaptive potential. Such effects are especially pertinent to North Sea cod, which are threatened by continuing exploitation and rising sea temperatures.
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