Long-Term Changes in the Distributions of Larval and Adult Fish in the Northeast U.S. Shelf Ecosystem

February 25, 2020

Changes in the northeast shelf ecosystem are resulting in changes in timing of when fish reproduce and were they live. Management of marine fish requires long-term data of eggs, larvae, and adults to understand the past, present, and future of marine fisheries.

Many studies have documented long-term changes in adult marine fish distributions and linked these changes to climate change and multi-decadal climate variability. Most marine fish, however, have complex life histories with morphologically distinct stages, which use different habitats. Shifts in distribution of one stage may affect the connectivity between life stages and thereby impact population processes including spawning and recruitment. Specifically, many marine fish species have a planktonic larval stage, which lasts from weeks to months. We compared the spatial distribution and seasonal occurrence of larval fish in the Northeast U.S. Shelf Ecosystem to test whether spatial and temporal distributions changed between two decades. Two large-scale ichthyoplankton programs sampled using similar methods and spatial domain each decade. Adult distributions from a long-term bottom trawl survey over the same time period and spatial area were also analyzed using the same analytical framework to compare changes in larval and adult distributions between the two decades.  Changes in spatial distribution of larvae occurred for 43 percent of taxa, which shifts predominately northward (i.e., along-shelf). Timing of larval occurrence shifted for 49 percent of the larval taxa, with shifts evenly split between occurring earlier and later in the season. Where both larvae and adults of the same species were analyzed, 48 percent exhibited different shifts between larval and adult stages. Overall, these results demonstrate that larval fish distributions are changing in the ecosystem. The spatial changes are largely consistent with expectations from a changing climate. The temporal changes are more complex, indicating we need a better understanding of reproductive timing of fishes in the ecosystem. These changes may impact population productivity through changes in life history connectivity and recruitment, and add to the accumulating evidence for changes in the Northeast U.S. Shelf Ecosystem with potential to impact fisheries and other ecosystem services.


Walsh, H.J., D.E. Richardson, K.E. Marancik, J.A. Hare. 2015. Long-term changes in the distributions of larval fish and adult fish in the Northeast U.S. Shelf Ecosystem. PLoS ONE 10: e0137382.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on 05/11/2020