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Coastal connectivity of an abundant inshore fish species: model-data comparison along the southern coast of South Africa

Cuen Muller*, Christophe Lett, Francesca Porri, Paula Pattrick, Dylan Bailey, Hugo Denis, Nicolas Barrier, Warren Potts, David M. Kaplan

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Biophysical models are often used to estimate larval dispersal patterns for the assessment of marine metapopulation spatial structure. Comparisons of these models with field observations are however relatively rare, and the extent to which models reproduce true marine connectivity patterns is unclear. We developed a biophysical model for larvae of the blacktail seabream (Sparidae: Diplodus capensis), an abundant recreational and subsistence fishery species along the south-east coast of South Africa, and compared outputs from various configurations of that model to results from a field study conducted in a large regional embayment (Algoa Bay). Seasonal patterns of dispersal and recruitment produced by the model agreed best with field observations when thermal constraints on spawners and larvae were included. Spatial gradients in settling larvae also matched well, with the model capturing observed high settler densities within the lee of a major headland. Nevertheless, stronger spatial gradients were observed in larval densities from the field study when compared with model results, which may be explained by behavioural post-settlement processes. Model-based dispersal patterns revealed up to five subpopulations along the southern coast with barriers to connectivity between subpopulations generally linked to hydrographic features. Overall, our results suggest that thermally-mediated spawning behaviour, physical transport and post-settlement processes all play important roles in determining marine connectivity for the blacktail seabream. Refining physiological larval constraints may be an important component that needs to be considered going forward.