The spatial distribution of marine fishes can change for many reasons, including density-dependent distributional shifts. Previous studies show mixed support for either the proportional-density model (PDM; no relationship between abundance and area occupied, supported by ideal-free distribution theory) or the basin model (BM; positive abundance-area relationship, supported by density-dependent habitat selection theory). The BM implies that fishes move towards preferred habitat as the population declines. We estimate the average relationship using bottom trawl data for 92 fish species from six marine regions, to determine whether the BM or PDM provides a better description for sea-bottom-associated fishes. We fit a spatio-temporal model and estimate changes in effective area occupied and abundance, and combine results to estimate the average abundance-area relationship as well as variability among taxa and regions. The average relationship is weak but significant (0.6% increase in area for a 10% increase in abundance), whereas only a small proportion of species-region combinations show a negative relationship (i.e. shrinking area when abundance increases). Approximately one-third of combinations (34.6%) are predicted to increase in area more than 1% for every 10% increase in abundance. We therefore infer that population density generally changes faster than effective area occupied during abundance changes. Gadiformes have the strongest estimated relationship (average 1.0% area increase for every 10% abundance increase) followed by Pleuronectiformes and Scorpaeniformes, and the Eastern Bering Sea shows a strong relationship between abundance and area occupied relative to other regions. We conclude that the BM explains a small but important portion of spatial dynamics for sea-bottom-associated fishes, and that many individual populations merit cautious management during population declines, because a compressed range may increase the efficiency of harvest.