We examined climatic effects on the geographic distribution and abundance of 34 dominant oceanic fishes in the southern California region using larval fish data collected from the 50-year long California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) surveys. The oceanic species responses to environmental changes in their geographic distributions were not very pronounced, perhaps because they lived in the deep layer where temperature change was relatively small or because the environmental variation of the CalCOFI region is not strong enough (with an average temperature gradient of the upper 100 m around 91 km °C−1). Among the 34 taxa, 16 showed a significant distributional shift (median latitude or boundaries) in relation to environmental variables, and eight species significantly shifted their geographic distribution from the 1951–1976 cold period to the 1977–1998 warm period. Interestingly, the vertically migrating taxa more often showed a significant response to environmental variables than the nonmigrating mesopelagic taxa, reflecting the more significant increase in heat content of the upper ocean (<200 m), compared with the deeper zone (300–500 m) where the mesopelagic fishes typically remain. Climate change has significant effects on the abundances of oceanic fishes. Twenty-four taxa exhibited a significant change in abundance in relation to environmental variables, and 25 taxa, including both warm and cold-water taxa, showed a significant increase in abundance from the cold to warm period. Analysis of physical data indicated that the surface-layer (20–200 m) warmed significantly and the isotherms approached shoreward from the cold to the warm period. We further show that the spatial distribution of coastal–neritic fish retreated shoreward and oceanic fish extended shoreward from the cold to warm period. Our results suggest intensified stratification of the southern California region during the warm period may create a suitable habitat for the oceanic species. Moreover, such an unfavorable condition (e.g. changes in food habitat) for coastal–neritic species might result in competitive release for the oceanic fishes to flourish.