Connecting Palau’s marine protected areas: a population genetic approach to conservation
Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and are projected to become annual in Micronesia by 2040. To prepare for this threat, the Government of Palau is reviewing its marine protected area network to increase the resilience of the reefs by integrating connectivity into the network design. To support their effort, we used high-throughput sequencing of microsatellites to create genotypes of colonies of the coral Acropora hyacinthus to characterize population genetic structure and dispersal patterns that led to the recovery of Palau’s reefs from a 1998 bleaching event. We found no evidence of a founder effect or refugium where colonies may have survived to recolonize the reef. Instead, we found significant pairwise F′st values, indicating population structure and low connectivity among most of the 25 sites around Palau. We used kinship to measure genetic differences at the individual level among sites and found that differences were best explained by the degree of exposure to the ocean [F1,20 = 3.015, Pr(>F) = 0.01], but with little of the total variation explained. A permutation test of the pairwise kinship coefficients revealed that there was self-seeding within sites. Overall, the data point to the population of A. hyacinthus in Palau recovering from a handful of surviving colonies with population growth primarily from self-seeding and little exchange among sites. This finding has significant implications for the management strategies for the reefs of Palau, and we recommend increasing the number and distribution of management areas around Palau to capture the genetic architecture and increase the chances of protecting potential refuges in the future.