Genetic isolation by distance (IBD) has rarely been described in marine species with high potential for dispersal at both the larval and adult life-history stages. Here, we report significant relationships between inferred levels of gene flow and geographic distance in the Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, at 10 nuclear restriction-fragment-length-polymorphism (RFLP) loci at small regional scales in the western north Atlantic region (< 1600 km) that mirror those previously detected over its entire geographic range (up to 7300 km). Highly significant allele frequency differences were observed among eight northwestern Atlantic populations, although the mean FST for all 10 loci was only 0.014. Despite this weak population structuring, the distance separating populations explained between 54% and 62% of the variation in gene flow depending on whether nine or 10 loci were used to estimate Nm. Across the species' entire geographic range, highly significant differences were observed among six regional populations at nine of the 10 loci (mean FST = 0.068) and seven loci exhibited significant negative relationships between gene flow and distance. At this large geographic scale, natural selection acting in the vicinity of one RFLP locus (GM798) had a significant effect on the correlation between gene flow and distance, and eliminating it from the analysis caused the coefficient of determination to increase from 17% to 62%. The role of vicariance was assessed by sequentially removing populations from the analysis and was found to play a minor role in contributing to the relationship between gene flow and distance at either geographic scale. The correlation between gene flow and distance detected in G. morhua at small and large spatial scales suggests that dispersal distances and effective population sizes are much smaller than predicted for the species and that the recent age of populations, rather than extensive gene flow, may be responsible for its weak population structure. Our results suggest that interpreting limited genetic differences among populations as reflecting high levels of ongoing gene flow should be made with caution.
Corresponding Editor: R. Burton