• Marine reserves;
  • dispersal;
  • sustainability;
  • fisheries;
  • uncertainty

Marine reserves hold promise for maintaining biodiversity and sustainable fishery management, but studies supporting them have not addressed a crucial aspect of sustainability: the reduction in viability of populations with planktonic larvae dispersing along a coastal habitat with noncontiguous marine reserves. We show how sustainability depends on the fraction of natural larval settlement (FNLS) remaining after reserves are implemented, which in turn depends on reserve configuration and larval dispersal distance. Sustainability requires FNLS to be greater than an empir-ically determined minimum. Maintaining an adequate value for all species requires either a large, unlikely fraction (> 35%) of coastline in reserves, or reserves that are larger than the mean larval dispersal distance of the target species. FNLS is greater for species dispersing shorter distances, which implies reserves can lead to: (1) changes in community composition and (2) genetic selection for shorter dispersal distance. Dependence of sustainability on dispersal distance is a new source of uncertainty.