The Influence of Eddies on Coral Larval Retention in the Flower Garden Banks
While coral larval exchange among reef patches is crucial to the persistence of coral metapopulations, larval retention within patches is critical for local population maintenance. In isolated systems such as the Flower Garden Banks (FGB) of the northwest Gulf of Mexico (NW GoM), local retention is thought to play an important role in maintaining high levels of coral cover. Numerous mesoscale cyclonic and anticyclonic features (eddies) are known to spin off from the GoM’s Loop Current, many of which pass over the FGB. We developed a biophysical model of coral larval dispersal (2004–2018) to investigate the extent to which eddies may facilitate coral larval exchange between and within the east and west FGB. Virtual larvae of the broadcast spawning Orbicella faveolata and the brooding Porites astreoides were released and tracked with species-specific reproductive and larval behaviors to investigate differences in retention and connectivity in corals with contrasting life histories. Eddies were detected and tracked using sea surface altimetry and compared with larval trajectories to assess the retentive characteristics of these features. Results suggest consistently high, but species-specific, levels of local retention and cross-bank connectivity in both coral species. High local retention is possible early in the dispersal of P. astreoides, and both species routinely experience retention due to recirculation in eddy features as late as 30 days after planulation or spawning. Eddies passing over the FGB were associated with pulses of between- and within-bank retention, indicating that larvae are capable of dispersing from and returning to coral reefs in the NW GoM. Although opportunities for retention are inherently ephemeral and stochastic due to the nature of Loop Current Eddy (LCE) shedding, eddy propagation should serve as a reliable reseeding mechanism for FGB coral populations. In particular, peaks in late summer eddy propagation correspond with mass coral spawning and may enhance larval retention. These findings support the assertions that healthy FGB reefs may be largely self-sustaining, and that persistent, self-sustaining populations at the FGB may supply downstream reefs with larvae and behave as a remote climate change refugium.