Large predatory fishes have long played an important role in marine ecosystems and fisheries. Overexploitation, however, is gradually diminishing this role. Recent estimates indicate that exploitation has depleted large predatory fish communities worldwide by at least 90% over the past 50–100 years. We demonstrate that these declines are general, independent of methodology, and even higher for sensitive species such as sharks. We also attempt to predict the future prospects of large predatory fishes. (i) An analysis of maximum reproductive rates predicts the collapse and extinction of sensitive species under current levels of fishing mortality. Sensitive species occur in marine habitats worldwide and have to be considered in most management situations. (ii) We show that to ensure the survival of sensitive species in the northwest Atlantic fishing mortality has to be reduced by 40–80%. (iii) We show that rapid recovery of community biomass and diversity usually occurs when fishing mortality is reduced. However, recovery is more variable for single species, often because of the influence of species interactions. We conclude that management of multi–species fisheries needs to be tailored to the most sensitive, rather than the more robust species. This requires reductions in fishing effort, reduction in bycatch mortality and protection of key areas to initiate recovery of severely depleted communities.