The daily mortality rates of North Sea herring early-stage larvae are found to vary over decades. Larval abundance data were used with a spatio-temporal oceanographic model to reconstruct temperature histories of the observed larvae. The histories were used in conjunction with a temperature-based growth model to estimate larval age. Mean daily mortality rates were then estimated for the four spawning components (Downs, Banks, Buchan and Orkney/Shetland) using the vertical life table approach, which considers instantaneous abundances across all ages rather than following distinct cohorts. All spawning components, but especially Downs (in the south), exhibited a steady rise in mortality associated with increasing population size. In addition, the three northern components shared a distinct trend in mortality that was significantly correlated with ambient water temperatures experienced by the larvae during the respective time periods after hatching. This trend was also significantly negatively correlated with the residuals of the whole stock-recruitment relationship. These findings were generally robust to assumptions about growth and hatch length of larvae. The compensatory increase in productivity in the late 1980s and poor recruitment since 2000 coincide with changes in the mortality of larvae younger than 30 days post hatch and covary with larval density and temperature. Thus we suggest that the mortality of early-stage larvae does impact on the population dynamics in North Sea herring in its current productivity regime, implying a critical period in the determination of year class strength.
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