Establishing connectivity patterns of eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) on regional oceanographic scales

Project Leader: Sean P. Powers, Ph.D.

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Localized depletion of marine and estuarine populations often results from large-scale natural and anthropogenic disturbances (e.g., hurricanes, oil spills) as well as overharvest of fisheries resources. Understanding how such localized depletions may affect populations at larger regional scales requires knowledge of connectivity among local populations within the larger regional landscape or metapopulation. Efforts to restore populations following such decreases requires similar knowledge. During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, dramatic declines of oysters occurred within subtidal areas in estuaries west and east of the Mississippi River. We examined trajectories of particles, which were parameterized to mimic oyster larvae, using the ADvanced CIRCulation (ADCIRC) model to evaluate potential connectivity within and among embayments from Western Louisiana to Alabama. Patterns of larval settlement, which we defined as the intersection of a larval particle with known or expected oyster habitat at any point 13 to 21 days post-release, reflected much greater local contributions, with 50-90% of settled particles originating within the same subdivision of embayments. Exchange among subdivision was much less (0-40%) and settlement originating from outside the embayment of release was trivial under most scenarios (0-14%). Connectivity between adjacent basins was greatest for larvae released in the southern portions of the embayment, whereas connectivity among non-adjacent basins was not predicted under the scenarios modeled. Because most local populations are relatively isolated on ecological timescales, areas suffering from extensive local depletion are likely to require extensive time to recover due to the lack of larval subsidy from the overall regional population. Restoration would require building stepping-stone populations or reefs within and among basin to restore a high degree of connectivity.

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