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Warming temperatures and smaller body sizes: synchronous changes in growth of North Sea fishes



Decreasing body size has been proposed as a universal response to increasing temperatures. The physiology behind the response is well established for ectotherms inhabiting aquatic environments: as higher temperatures decrease the aerobic capacity, individuals with smaller body sizes have a reduced risk of oxygen deprivation. However, empirical evidence of this response at the scale of communities and ecosystems is lacking for marine fish species. Here, we show that over a 40-year period six of eight commercial fish species in the North Sea examined underwent concomitant reductions in asymptotic body size with the synchronous component of the total variability coinciding with a 1–2 °C increase in water temperature. Smaller body sizes decreased the yield-per-recruit of these stocks by an average of 23%. Although it is not possible to ascribe these phenotypic changes unequivocally to temperature, four aspects support this interpretation: (i) the synchronous trend was detected across species varying in their life history and life style; (ii) the decrease coincided with the period of increasing temperature; (iii) the direction of the phenotypic change is consistent with physiological knowledge; and (iv) no cross-species synchrony was detected in other species-specific factors potentially impacting growth. Our findings support a recent model-derived prediction that fish size will shrink in response to climate-induced changes in temperature and oxygen. The smaller body sizes being projected for the future are already detectable in the North Sea.