Implications of complex connectivity patterns, disturbance, Allee effects, and fisheries in the dynamics of marine metapopulations
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Nearshore populations have been depleted and some have not yet recovered. Therefore, theoretical studies focus on improving fisheries management and designing marine protected areas (MPAs). Depleted populations may be undergoing an Allee effect, i.e. a decrease in fitness at low densities. Here, I constructed a marine metapopulation model that included pre- and post-dispersal Allee effects using a network theory approach. Networks represent metapopulations as groups of nodes connected by dispersal paths. With this model I answered four questions: What is the role of Allee effects on habitat occupancy? Are MPAs effective in recovering exploited populations? What is the importance of larval dispersal patterns in preventing local extinctions due to exploitation and Allee effects? Can exploitation fragment nearshore metapopulations? When weak Allee effects are included, habitat occupancy drops as larval retention decreases because more larvae are lost to unsuitable habitat. With strong Allee effects habitat occupancy also drops at high larval retention because more larvae are needed to overcome the Allee effect. Post-dispersal Allee effects seem more detrimental for nearshore metapopulations. MPA effectiveness seems also lower in a post-dispersal Allee effect scenario. In overexploited systems, local populations that go extinct are also less likely to recover even after protecting the whole coastline. In exploited nearshore metapopulations with Allee effects, local occupancy or the recovery of local populations depends not only on larval inflow from neighbor populations, but also on larval inflow for these neighbors. Nearshore metapopulations with intense fishing mortality and Allee effects may also suffer a decrease in dispersal strength and fragmentation. Population fragmentation occurs when large populations are split into smaller groups. A tool for detecting partitioning in a network is modularity. The modularity analysis performed for red abalone in the Southern California Bight showed that exploitation increases partitioning through time before the entire metapopulation collapses. These findings call for research effort in estimating the strength of potential Allee effects to prevent stock collapse and assess MPA effectiveness, evaluating the predictability of local occupancy by centrality metrics to help identify important sites for conservation, and using modularity analysis to quantify the health of exploited metapopulations to prevent their collapse.