Large amplitude variations in recruitment of small pelagic fish result from interactions between a fluctuating environment and population dynamics processes such as spawning. The spatial extent and location of spawning, which is critical to the fate of eggs and larvae, can vary strongly from year to year, as a result of changing population structure and environmental conditions. Spawning habitat can be divided into ‘potential spawning habitat’, defined as habitat where the hydrographic conditions are suitable for spawning, ‘realized spawning habitat’, defined as habitat where spawning actually occurs, and ‘successful spawning habitat’, defined as habitat from where successful recruitment has resulted. Using biological data collected during the period 2000–2004, as well as hydrographic data, we investigate the role of environmental parameters in controlling the potential spawning habitat of anchovy and sardine in the Bay of Biscay. Anchovy potential spawning habitat appears to be primarily related to bottom temperature followed by surface temperature and mixed-layer depth, whilst surface and bottom salinity appear to play a lesser role. The possible influence of hydrographic factors on the spawning habitat of sardine seems less clear than for anchovy. Modelled relationships between anchovy and sardine spawning are used to predict potential spawning habitat from hydrodynamical simulations. The results show that the seasonal patterns in spawning are well reproduced by the model, indicating that hydrographic changes may explain a large fraction of spawning spatial dynamics. Such models may prove useful in the context of forecasting potential impacts of future environmental changes on sardine and anchovy reproductive strategy in the north-east Atlantic.