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Many types of fish migrate on a regular basis, on time scales ranging from daily to annual, and over distances ranging from a few meters to thousands of kilometers. Fish usually migrate because of diet or reproductive needs, although in some cases the reason for migration remains unknown.


Fish can migrate vertically, up and down the water column, or horizontally, across oceans or along rivers. Many marine species make daily, or diel vertical migrations (Latin: 'Dies' is day).

Classification of horizontally migrating fish:
  • potamodromous fish migrate within fresh water only ( is river and dromos is 'a running').
  • oceanodromous fish migrate within salt water only (Greek: 'Oceanos' is ocean).
  • diadromous fish travel between salt and fresh water (Greek: 'Dia' is between).
* anadromous fish live in the ocean mostly, and breed in fresh water (Greek: 'Ana' is up; The noun is "anadromy")
* catadromous fish live in fresh water, and breed in the ocean (Greek: 'Kata' is down)
* amphidromous fish move between fresh and salt water during their life cycle, but not to breed (Greek: 'Amphi' is both)

Forage fish

Migration of Icelandic capelin

Forage fish often make great migrations between their spawning, feeding and nursery grounds. Schools of a particular stock usually travel in a triangle between these grounds. For example, one stock of herrings have their spawning ground in southern Norwaymarker, their feeding ground in Icelandmarker, and their nursery ground in northern Norway. Wide triangular journeys such as these may be important because forage fish, when feeding, cannot distinguish their own offspring.

Capelin are a forage fish of the smelt family found in the Atlanticmarker and Arcticmarker oceans. In summer, they graze on dense swarms of plankton at the edge of the ice shelf. Larger capelin also eat krill and other crustaceans. The capelin move inshore in large schools to spawn and migrate in spring and summer to feed in plankton rich areas between Icelandmarker, Greenlandmarker, and Jan Mayenmarker. The migration is affected by ocean currents. Around Iceland maturing capelin make large northward feeding migrations in spring and summer. The return migration takes place in September to November. The spawning migration starts north of Iceland in December or January.

The diagram on the right shows the main spawning grounds and larval drift routes. Capelin on the way to feeding grounds is coloured green, capelin on the way back is blue, and the breeding grounds are red.

Highly migratory species

The term highly migratory species (HMS) has its origins in Article 64 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Convention does not provide an operational definition of the term, but in an annex (UNCLOS Annex 1) lists the species considered highly migratory by parties to the Convention. The list includes: tuna and tuna-like species (albacore, bluefin, bigeye tuna, skipjack, yellowfin, blackfin, little tunny, southern bluefin and bullet), pomfret, marlin, sailfish, swordfish, saury and ocean going sharks, dolphins and other cetaceans.

These high trophic oceanodromous species undertake migrations of significant but variable distances across oceans for feeding, often on forage fish, or reproduction, and also have wide geographic distributions. Thus, these species are found both inside the 200 mile exclusive economic zones and in the high seas outside these zones. They are pelagic species, which means they mostly live in the open ocean and do not live near the sea floor, although they may spend part of their life cycle in nearshore waters.

Highly migratory species can be compared with straddling stock and transboundary stock. Straddling stock range both within an EEZ as well as in the high seas. Transboundary stock range in the EEZs of at least two countries. A stock can be both transboundary and straddling.

Other examples

Some of the best-known anadromous fish are the five species of Pacific salmon, which are Chinook (King), Coho (Silver), Sockeye (Red), Chum (Dog) and Pink (Humpback). The salmon hatch in small freshwater streams. From there they migrate to the sea to mature, living there for two to six years. When mature, the salmon return to the same streams where they were hatched to spawn. Salmon are capable of going hundreds of kilometers upriver, and humans must install fish ladders in dams to enable the salmon to get past. Other examples of anadromous fishes are sea trout, three-spined stickleback, and shad.

Life cycle of anadromous fish.
From a U.S.
Federal Government pamphlet.
(Click image to enlarge.)
The most remarkable catadromous fishes are freshwater eels of genus Anguilla, whose larvae drift on the open ocean, sometimes for months or years, before travelling thousands of kilometres back to their original streams (see eel life history).

An example of an amphidromous species is the Bull shark, which lives in Lake Nicaraguamarker of Central America and the Zambezi Rivermarker of Africa. Both these habitats are fresh water, yet Bull sharks will also migrate to and from the ocean. Specifically, Lake Nicaragua Bull sharks migrate to the Atlantic Oceanmarker and Zambezi Bull sharks migrate to the Indian Oceanmarker.

Diel vertical migration is a common behavior; many marine species move to the surface at night to feed, then return to the depths during daytime.

A number of large marine fishes, such as the tuna, migrate north and south annually, following temperature variations in the ocean. These are of great importance to fisheries.

Freshwater fish migrations are usually shorter, typically from lake to stream or vice versa, for spawning purposes. However, potamodromous migrations of Colorado pikeminnow of the Colorado River system can be extensive. Migrations to natal spawning grounds easily be 100 km, with maximum distances of 300 km reported from radiotagging studies.

Historic exploitation

Since prehistoric times humans have exploited certain anadromous fishes during their migrations into freshwater streams, when they are more vulnerable to capture. Societies dating to the Millingstone Horizon are known which exploited the anadromous fishery of Morro Creek and other Pacific coastmarker estuaries. In Nevadamarker the Paiute tribe has harvested migrating Lahontan cutthroat trout along the Truckee River since prehistoric times. This fishing practice continues to current times, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‎ has supported research to assure the water quality in the Truckee can support suitable populations of the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Modelling fish migration

In a paper published in 2009, researchers from Iceland recount their application of an interacting particle model to the capelin stock around Iceland, successfully predicting the spawning migration route for 2008.

See also


  1. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Text
  2. Pacific Fishery Management Council: Background: Highly Migratory Species
  3. FAO (2007) Report of the FAO workshop on vulnerable ecosystems and destructive fishing in deep sea fisheries Rome, Fisheries Report No. 829.
  4. Lucas, M.C., and E. Baras. (2001) Migration of freshwater fishes. Blackwell Science Ltd., Malden, MA
  5. C.M. Hogan, 2008
  6. Barbaro1 A, Einarsson B, Birnir1 B, Sigurðsson S, Valdimarsson S, Pálsson ÓK, Sveinbjörnsson S and Sigurðsson P (2009) "Modelling and simulations of the migration of pelagic fish" Journal of Marine Science, 66(5):826-838.


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