Abstract Variability in the high mortality rate during early life stages is considered to be one of the principal determinants of year-class variability in fish stocks. The influence of water column stability on the spatial distribution of fish larvae and their prey is widely acknowledged. Water column stability may also impact growth through the early life history of fishes, and consequently alter the probability of survival to maturity by limiting susceptibility to predation and starvation. As a test of this concept, the variability in condition and growth of dab (Limanda limanda) and sprat (Sprattus sprattus) larvae was investigated in relation to seasonal stratification of the water column in the north-western Irish Sea. RNA/DNA ratios and otolith microincrement analysis were used to estimate nutritional status and recent growth rates of larvae captured on four cruises in May and June of 1998 and 1999. Dab and sprat larvae were less abundant in 1999 and were in poorer condition with lower growth rates than in 1998. Dab larvae of <13 mm also exhibited spatial variability with higher RNA/DNA ratios at the seasonal tidal-mixing front compared with stratified and mixed water masses. However, the growth and nutritional status of sprat larvae was uncorrelated to water column stability, meaning the more favourable feeding conditions generally associated with the stratified pool and tidal-mixing front in the Irish Sea were not reflected in the growth and condition of these larvae. This suggests that the link between stability, production and larval growth is more complicated than inferred by some previous studies. The existence of spatio-temporal heterogeneity in the growth and condition of these larvae has implications for larval survival and the recruitment success of these species in the Irish Sea.