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Future fish distributions constrained by depth in warming seas


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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Figure 1: Physical environment of the North Sea.
Figure 2: Predictive ability of generalized additive models (GAMs).
Figure 3: Observed and predicted abundances of eight focal species along depth, latitude and mean annual near-bottom temperature (NBT) and sea surface temperature (SST) gradients.

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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.).

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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.

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Correspondence to Stephen D. Simpson.

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Rutterford, L., Simpson, S., Jennings, S. et al. Future fish distributions constrained by depth in warming seas. Nature Clim Change 5, 569–573 (2015).

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