Global warming has increased the frequency of extreme climate events, yet responses of biological and human communities are poorly understood, particularly for aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. Retrospective analysis of known outcomes may provide insights into the nature of adaptations and trajectory of subsequent conditions. We consider the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora and its impact on Gulf of Maine (GoM) coastal and riparian fisheries in 1816. Applying complex adaptive systems theory with historical methods, we analyzed fish export data and contemporary climate records to disclose human and piscine responses to Tambora’s extreme weather at different spatial and temporal scales while also considering sociopolitical influences. Results identified a tipping point in GoM fisheries induced by concatenating social and biological responses to extreme weather. Abnormal daily temperatures selectively affected targeted fish species—alewives, shad, herring, and mackerel—according to their migration and spawning phenologies and temperature tolerances. First to arrive, alewives suffered the worst. Crop failure and incipient famine intensified fishing pressure, especially in heavily settled regions where dams already compromised watersheds. Insufficient alewife runs led fishers to target mackerel, the next species appearing in abundance along the coast; thus, 1816 became the “mackerel year.” Critically, the shift from riparian to marine fisheries persisted and expanded after temperatures moderated and alewives recovered. We conclude that contingent human adaptations to extraordinary weather permanently altered this complex system. Understanding how adaptive responses to extreme events can trigger unintended consequences may advance long-term planning for resilience in an uncertain future.