Climate change and deepening of the North Sea fish assemblage: A biotic indicator of warming seas

Nicholas K. Dulvy, Stuart I. Rogers, Simon Jennings, Vanessa Stelzenmüller, Stephen Dye, Hein R. Skjoldal

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585 Citations (Scopus)


1. Climate change impacts have been observed on individual species and species subsets; however, it remains to be seen whether there are systematic, coherent assemblage-wide responses to climate change that could be used as a representative indicator of changing biological state. 2. European shelf seas are warming faster than the adjacent land masses and faster than the global average. We explore the year-by-year distributional response of North Sea bottom-dwelling (demersal) fishes to temperature change over the 25 years from 1980 to 2004. The centres of latitudinal and depth distributions of 28 fishes were estimated from species-abundance-location data collected on an annual fish monitoring survey. 3. Individual species responses were aggregated into 19 assemblages reflecting physiology (thermal preference and range), ecology (body size and abundance-occupancy patterns), biogeography (northern, southern and presence of range boundaries), and susceptibility to human impact (fishery target, bycatch and non-target species). 4. North Sea winter bottom temperature has increased by 1.6°C over 25 years, with a 1°C increase in 1988-1989 alone. During this period, the whole demersal fish assemblage deepened by ∼3.6 m decade and the deepening was coherent for most assemblages. 5. The latitudinal response to warming was heterogeneous, and reflects (i) a northward shift in the mean latitude of abundant, widespread thermal specialists, and (ii) the southward shift of relatively small, abundant southerly species with limited occupancy and a northern range boundary in the North Sea. 6. Synthesis and applications. The deepening of North Sea bottom-dwelling fishes in response to climate change is the marine analogue of the upward movement of terrestrial species to higher altitudes. The assemblage-level depth responses, and both latitudinal responses, covary with temperature and environmental variability in a manner diagnostic of a climate change impact. The deepening of the demersal fish assemblage in response to temperature could be used as a biotic indicator of the effects of climate change in the North Sea and other semi-enclosed seas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1029-1039
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2008


  • climate change
  • habitat loss
  • invasive species
  • life-history trait
  • North Sea
  • regime shift
  • thermal preference

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