Sea temperatures control the distribution of European marine fish

Study highlights the importance of temperature in determining where fish species are found.


Climate change has strongly influenced the distribution and abundance of marine fish species, leading to concern about the effects of future climate on commercially harvested stocks. Understanding the key drivers of large-scale spatial variation across present-day marine assemblages enables predictions of future change.

By confirming temperature as a key driver of large-scale spatial variation in fish assemblages, a new study from the University of Bristol could use future climate projections to predict where species will be most expected by 2050 and 2100.

The findings demonstrate that generally speaking, regions with greater warming are projected to have the largest changes at the community level, with the consequences being more evident further north – at higher latitudes.

The study was the first to examine how environmental variation influences species distributions using information from fisheries surveys conducted over such a large area. 31,502 samples from 23 surveys and 198 marine fish species were included in the study, born between 2005 and 2018.

Martin Genner, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, who guided the research, said: “This unique study brings together fisheries survey data from across this vitally important marine ecosystem. Using this information, we can conclusively demonstrate the broad-scale importance of sea temperature in controlling how fish communities assemble.”

Louise Rutterford, a lead author of the study conducted at Bristol and Exeter Universities, explains: “The team’s analysis showed how temperature proved to be the most critical variable for determining where species are found, with water depth and salinity also being important factors. This enabled us to use predictive models to learn more about how fish will respond to climate warming over the coming decades.”

Professor Steve Simpson, who supervised the research, added“The study adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that future climate-driven warming will lead to widespread changes in fish communities, potentially resulting in changes to the catches of commercial fisheries across the region.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Louise A. Rutterford et al. Sea temperature is the primary driver of recent and predicted fish community structure across Northeast Atlantic shelf seas. Wiley Online Library. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16633
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