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  1. Abstract

    Metapopulation and source–sink dynamics are increasingly considered within spatially explicit management of wildlife populations, yet the application of these concepts has generally been limited to comparisons of the performance (e.g., demographic rates or dispersal) inside vs. outside protected areas, and at spatial scales that do not encompass an entire metapopulation. In the present study, a spatially explicit, size‐structured matrix model was applied to simulate the dynamics of an Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) metapopulation in the second largest estuary in the United States—the Albemarle‐Pamlico Estuarine System in North Carolina. The model integrated larval dispersal simulations with empirical measures of oyster demographic rates to simulate the dynamics of the entire oyster metapopulation consisting of 646 reefs and five reef types: (1) restored subtidal reefs closed to harvest (i.e., sanctuaries or protected areas;n = 14), (2) restored subtidal reefs open to harvest (n = 53), (3) natural subtidal reefs open to harvest (n = 301), (4) natural intertidal reefs open to harvest (n = 129), and (5) oyster reefs on manmade, hard structures such as seawalls (n = 149). Key findings included (1) an overall stable, yet slightly declining oyster metapopulation, (2) variable reef type‐specific population trajectories, largely dependent on spatiotemporal variation in larval recruitment, (3) a greater relative importance of inter‐reef larval connectivity on metapopulation dynamics than local larval retention processes, and (4) spatiotemporal variation in the source–sink status of reef subpopulations wherein subtidal sanctuaries and reefs located in the northeastern portion of the estuary were frequent sources. From a management perspective, continued protection of oyster sanctuaries is warranted. Sanctuaries represented only 6.2% of the total reef area, however, they harbored 19% (± 2%) of all oysters and produced 25% (± 6%) of all larvae settling within the metapopulation. Additional management priorities should focus on restoration or conservation of subpopulations that serve as frequent source subpopulations (including those with poor demographic rates, but high connectivity potential), and management of harvest from sink subpopulations. The application of a source–sink framework and similar integrated modeling approach could inform management of oysters in other systems, as well as other species that exhibit similar metapopulation characteristics.

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