Larval fish suffer dramatic mortality in the days following transition to autonomous feeding, with over 90% of larvae being eliminated within a period of few weeks. Recent work has shown that the hydrodynamic environment experienced by recently-hatched larvae impedes their feeding rates even under high prey densities. Here, we quantified starvation through early ontogeny in Sparus aurata larvae (8-18 days post-hatching; DPH) and tested whether the emerging ontogenetic pattern is consistent with that expected one based on the hydrodynamic environment that these larvae experience. We screened three candidate genes agrp1, npy, and hsp70, whose expression was previously shown to respond to starvation in fish. Of the three genes, agrp1 was identified as a suitable indicator for starvation. Localization of agrp1 mRNA by whole-mount in-situ hybridization confirmed that, in S. aurata larvae, agrp1 is expressed only in the hypothalamus. Quantification of agrp1 mRNA using real-time PCR revealed that the expression of this gene is elevated in starved compared to fed larvae, and in younger (8 DPH) compared to older larvae (18 DPH). Manipulating the water viscosity to simulate the hydrodynamic conditions during the onset of the critical period led to increased agrp1 expression. These findings suggest that the hydrodynamic constraints on larval feeding lead to the starvation of small larvae. Further, they provide a mechanistic explanation for the "safe harbor"hypothesis, which postulates that larvae should allocate resources toward rapid linear growth to escape detrimental effects of dwelling in an environment where viscous fluid forces dominate.