Abstract The distribution of northern European hake (Merluccius merluccius L.) extends from the Bay of Biscay up to Norwegian waters. However, despite its wide geographical distribution, there have been few studies on fluctuations in
the European hake populations. Marine ecosystem shifts have been investigated worldwide and their influence on trophic levels has been studied, from top predator fish populations down to planktonic prey species, but there is little information on the effect of atmosphere–ocean shifts
on European hake. This work analyses hake recruitment success (recruits per adult biomass) in relation to environmental changes over the period 1978–2006 in order to determine whether the regime shift identified in several abiotic and biotic variables in the North Sea also affected the
Northeast Atlantic shelf oceanography. Hake recruitment success as well as parameters such as the sea surface temperature, wind patterns and copepod abundance changed significantly at the end of the 1980s, demonstrating an ecological regime shift in the Northeast Atlantic. Despite the low
reproductive biomass recorded during the last decades, hake recruitment success has been higher since the change in 1989/90. The higher productivity may have sustained the population despite the intense fishing pressure; copepod abundance, warmer water temperatures and moderate eastward transport
were found to be beneficial. In conclusion, in 1988/89 the Northeast Atlantic environment shifted to a favourable regime for northern hake production. This study supports the hypothesis that the hydro‐climatic regime shift that affected the North Sea in the late 1980s may have influenced
a wider region, such as the Northeast Atlantic.