- 1Migration is widespread among marine fishes, yet little is known about variation in the migration of individuals within localities, and the consequences for spatial population structure. We tested the hypothesis that variation in the migratory behaviour among plaice (Pleuronectes platessa L.) in the North Sea could be explained by large-scale differences in the speed and directions of the tidal streams, which the fish use as a transport mechanism.
- 2We released 752 mature female plaice tagged with electronic data storage tags at eight locations with contrasting tidal flow properties between December 1993 and September 1999.
- 3The experiment yielded 20 403 days of data from 145 plaice. Individual tags recorded depth and temperature for up to 512 days. The position of each fish was determined at intervals throughout the liberty period using the tidal location method.
- 4The results show that the fish were segregated into three discrete feeding aggregations during the summer non-breeding season. Two clusters were in warm, thermally mixed water in the eastern and western North Sea, respectively, and one was in deeper, cold, thermally stratified water to the north.
- 5In the winter spawning period, fish from all three aggregations mixed together in the southern North Sea, and fish from the eastern and northern subunits spawned in the south-eastern North Sea. The only fish that left the North Sea were western subunit plaice that visited spawning grounds in the eastern English Channel.
- 6Our results re-affirmed the major role of the tidal streams in the southern North Sea in structuring plaice dispersion, both by providing transport and guidance and by delimiting the extent of distribution due to thermal stratification during the summer. However, plaice from the northern North Sea did not use tidal stream transport.
- 7These results confirm the prediction that large-scale variation in migration behaviour can be explained in part by the tidal guidance and transport mechanisms available. They have also revealed features of spatial dynamics not observed previously from a century of conventional tagging experiments and illustrate how the study of individual fish can successfully define the migratory characteristics of populations.