Summary 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−1 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.
Journal of Applied Ecology – Wiley
Published: Aug 1, 2008
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