Summary Analyses of global fish stocks paint a mixed picture of success, with some holding fishery management responsible for the poor status of many stocks [1–3] or predicting widespread collapse [1, 4]. Some suggest a stable  or improving situation  in certain jurisdictions. The debate is particularly polarized in the European Union, where the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been criticized for failing to protect stocks [2, 7–10], while others argue that a rebuilding process is underway [11, 12]. We show that substantial change in stock trends occurred in the area around the turn of the century: since then, the fishing pressure (as measured by the exploitation rate) has reduced continuously and there have been increases in biomass, demonstrating the potential for stock recovery. In 2011, for the first time, the majority of assessed stocks, where reference points are defined, were fished sustainably. The reductions in fishing pressure were associated with declines in fishing effort. The last reform of the CFP, in 2002, introduced effort control as part of more enforceable management measures, which were also based on longer-term plans. Further reforms to the CFP are currently being developed, so it is important, when correcting its weaknesses, to also acknowledge and build on the success of a major reduction in the fishing pressure on European fish stocks.