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Identifying critical regions in small-world marine metapopulations


The precarious state of many nearshore marine ecosystems has prompted the use of marine protected areas as a tool for management and conservation. However, there remains substantial debate over their design and, in particular, how to best account for the spatial dynamics of nearshore marine species. Many commercially important nearshore marine species are sedentary as adults, with limited home ranges. It is as larvae that they disperse greater distances, traveling with ocean currents sometimes hundreds of kilometers. As a result, these species exist in spatially complex systems of connected subpopulations. Here, we explicitly account for the mutual dependence of subpopulations and approach protected area design in terms of network robustness. Our goal is to characterize the topology of nearshore metapopulation networks and their response to perturbation, and to identify critical subpopulations whose protection would reduce the risk for stock collapse. We define metapopulation networks using realistic estimates of larval dispersal generated from ocean circulation simulations and spatially explicit metapopulation models, and we then explore their robustness using node-removal simulation experiments. Nearshore metapopulations show small-world network properties, and we identify a set of highly connected hub subpopulations whose removal maximally disrupts the metapopulation network. Protecting these subpopulations reduces the risk for systemic failure and stock collapse. Our focus on catastrophe avoidance provides a unique perspective for spatial marine planning and the design of marine protected areas.

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