Letter | Published:

Future fish distributions constrained by depth in warming seas

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 569573 (2015) | Download Citation


European continental shelf seas have experienced intense warming over the past 30 years1. In the North Sea, fish have been comprehensively monitored throughout this period and resulting data provide a unique record of changes in distribution and abundance in response to climate change2,3. We use these data to demonstrate the remarkable power of generalized additive models (GAMs), trained on data earlier in the time series, to reliably predict trends in distribution and abundance in later years. Then, challenging process-based models that predict substantial and ongoing poleward shifts of cold-water species4,5, we find that GAMs coupled with climate projections predict future distributions of demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish species over the next 50 years will be strongly constrained by availability of habitat of suitable depth. This will lead to pronounced changes in community structure, species interactions and commercial fisheries, unless individual acclimation or population-level evolutionary adaptations enable fish to tolerate warmer conditions or move to previously uninhabitable locations.

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We thank staff of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science UK (Cefas) and all contributors to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) International Bottom Trawl Survey (IBTS) for collecting and providing survey data. We thank S. Vaz for training in GAM modelling in R and D. Maxwell for statistical guidance. This work was supported by a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)/Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Sustainable Marine Bioresources award (NE/F001878/1), with additional support from a NERC KE Fellowship (S.D.S.; NE/J500616/2), NERC-Cefas CASE PhD Studentship (L.A.R.; NE/L501669/1), Great Western Research (M.J.G.), Defra (S.J. and J.L.B.), NERC Oceans 2025 (M.J.G. and D.W.S), The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers (D.W.S.), and a Marine Biological Association Senior Research Fellowship (D.W.S.).

Author information

Author notes

    • Louise A. Rutterford
    •  & Stephen D. Simpson

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK

    • Louise A. Rutterford
    •  & Stephen D. Simpson
  2. School of Biological Sciences, Life Sciences Building, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1TQ, UK

    • Louise A. Rutterford
    •  & Martin J. Genner
  3. Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Lowestoft Laboratory, Pakefield Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk, NR33 0HT, UK

    • Louise A. Rutterford
    •  & Simon Jennings
  4. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Simon Jennings
  5. Ryan Institute, National University of Ireland Galway, University Road, Galway, Ireland

    • Mark P. Johnson
  6. Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, IMAS Waterfront Building, 20 Castray Esplanade, Battery Point, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • Julia L. Blanchard
  7. Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Newforge Lane, Belfast, BT9 5PX, Northern Ireland, UK

    • Pieter-Jan Schön
  8. Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth, PL1 2PB, UK

    • David W. Sims
  9. Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, University of Southampton, Waterfront Campus, European Way, Southampton, SO14 3ZH, UK

    • David W. Sims
  10. Centre for Biological Sciences, Building 85, University of Southampton, Highfield Campus, Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK

    • David W. Sims
  11. Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon, EX1 3PB, UK

    • Jonathan Tinker


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M.J.G. and M.P.J. conceived the research; S.J., J.L.B. and D.W.S. contributed to project development; S.D.S. and S.J. pre-processed fisheries agency data; L.A.R. and J.T. pre-processed climate data; S.D.S., M.J.G., L.A.R., M.P.J. and S.J. designed the analysis; L.A.R. and S.D.S. conducted the analysis; S.D.S., L.A.R. and M.J.G. prepared the initial manuscript and all authors contributed to revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen D. Simpson.

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