Recent studies based mainly on research survey data suggest that within the North Sea, sole Solea solea and plaice Pleuronectes platessa have exhibited distribution shifts in recent decadeson average southward for sole and northward to deeper waters for plaice. Various hypotheses may account for such shifts, including climate change effects and more intensive fishing in southern and shallower waters; but the relatively short time-span of datasets analysed so far (∼3 decades) has complicated the separation of these two effects. We have made use of a unique dataset of catch and effort data for British North Sea trawlers; these cover nine decades (spanning the period 19132007) and are spatially detailed by ICES rectangle (0.5° latitude by 1° longitude). We quantify, for the first time, long-term distribution changes of North Sea sole and plaice over a period approaching a century, and demonstrate that the distribution shift in plaice was attributable to climate change rather than to fishing, but that both climate and fishing played a role in the distribution shift of sole. The discussion also highlights the potential impact of additional factors, including eutrophication, prey availability, and habitat modification.