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Use of settlement patterns and geochemical tagging to test population connectivity of eastern oysters Crassostrea virginica in a freshwater-influenced estuary

Haley N. Gancel*, Ruth H. Carmichael, Jiabi Du, Kyeong Park

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Freshwater-dominated estuaries experience large fluctuations in their physical and chemical environments, which may influence larval dispersal, settlement, and connectivity of populations with pelagic larval stages. We used settlement patterns and natural tagging along with numerical hydrodynamic model results to assess settlement and connectivity among oysters across the freshwater-dominated Mobile Bay-eastern Mississippi Sound (MB-EMS) system. Specifically, we 1) tested how freshwater inputs and associated environmental attributes influenced settlement patterns during high and low discharge conditions in 2014 and 2016, respectively, 2) analyzed trace element (TE) ratios incorporated into multiple shell types (larval and settled shell of spat and adult shells) to determine if shells collected in-situ incorporate temporally stable site-specific signatures, and assessed if TE ratios compared between adult (TE natal signature proxy) and larval shells could infer connectivity. Larval settlement was 4x higher during low discharge than during high discharge when oyster larvae only settled in higher salinity regions (EMS). Spat and adult shells incorporated site-specific TE ratios that varied from weeks to months. Connectivity results (May-June 2016 only) suggest that EMS is an important larval source to EMS and lower MB. While we were able to infer probable connectivity patterns using adult and larval shells, more study is needed to assess the utility of adult shells as proxies for natal location TE signatures. Results provide a baseline for measuring future larval connectivity and adult distribution changes in the MB-EMS system. Biological and geochemical data demonstrate potential to identify environmental attributes that spatiotemporally mediate settlement and connectivity in dynamic systems.