Abstract Climate change, specifically temperature, affects the distribution and densities of species in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Here, we looked at the effect of temperature during winter and spawning period on latitudinal range shifts and changes in abundance of two non-commercial North Sea fish species, solenette ( Buglossidium luteum) and scaldfish ( Arnoglossus laterna). Both species have increased in abundance and moved to the north since the late 1980s, coinciding with a series of mild winters. In 1996, following a very cold winter, the abundance of both species temporarily decreased as they retracted to the south. The shift in temperature affected adult habitat conditions, allowing them to immigrate into new areas where they subsequently reproduced successfully. We can conclude this because recruitment improved following the increase in abundance. The recruitment relates significantly to the higher adult stock and higher temperatures. The predictions of higher average temperatures and milder winters in the North Sea make it likely that these species will increase further in abundance and move northward. The observed increase in abundance of these small flatfish species will affect the North Sea food web and therefore commercial species, e.g. plaice, by predation on juveniles and competition for benthic food resources.