The large fish indicator (LFI), or ‘proportion of fish greater than 40 cm length in bottom trawl surveys,’ is a frequently debated indicator of Good Environmental Status in European regional seas. How does the LFI respond to changes in fishing pressure? This question is addressed here through analysis of fine-scale spatial trends in the LFI within the North Sea, compared between two periods of contrasting fisheries management: 1983–1999 and 2000–2012, respectively, before and after the onset of the European Union's fleet reduction scheme. Over the entire period, the LFI has decreased in large parts of the North Sea. However, most of the decline was from 1983–1999; since 2000 the LFI has improved in much of the North Sea, especially in UK waters. Comparison with international effort data shows that those western areas where the LFI has improved correspond with regions where otter trawl effort has decreased since 2000 (and previously was highest in the 1990s), and also with decreases in beam trawl effort. This study provides strong support that recent European effort reduction schemes are now beginning to result in an improved ecosystem state as indicated by the regional-scale improvement in the LFI.