Many marine ecosystems have undergone ‘regime shifts’, i.e. abrupt reorganizations across trophic levels. Establishing whether these constitute shifts between alternative stable states is of key importance for the prospects of ecosystem recovery and for management. We show how mechanisms underlying alternative stable states caused by predator–prey interactions can be revealed in field data, using analyses guided by theory on size-structured community dynamics. This is done by combining data on individual performance (such as growth and fecundity) with information on population size and prey availability. We use Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and their prey in the Baltic Sea as an example to discuss and distinguish two types of mechanisms, ‘cultivation-depensation’ and ‘overcompensation’, that can cause alternative stable states preventing the recovery of overexploited piscivorous fish populations. Importantly, the type of mechanism can be inferred already from changes in the predators' body growth in different life stages. Our approach can thus be readily applied to monitored stocks of piscivorous fish species, for which this information often can be assembled. Using this tool can help resolve the causes of catastrophic collapses in marine predatory–prey systems and guide fisheries managers on how to successfully restore collapsed piscivorous fish stocks.