Although many sharks begin their life confined in nursery habitats, it is unknown how rapidly they disperse away from their natal area once they leave the nursery. We examine this issue in immature lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) from the time they leave the nursery (∼ age 3) at a subtropical island (Bimini, Bahamas), through to the onset of sexual maturity (∼ age 12). From 1995 to 2007 we tagged and genotyped a large fraction of the nursery-bound sharks at this location (0–3 years of age, N = 1776 individuals). From 2003 to 2007 we sampled immature sharks aged from 3 to 11 years (N = 150) living around the island and used physical/genetic tag recaptures coupled with kinship analysis to determine whether or not each of these ‘large immature sharks’ was locally born. We show that many island-born lemon sharks remain close to their natal area for long periods (years) after leaving the nursery; more than half of the sampled sharks up to 135 cm total length (∼6 years old) were locally born. The fraction of locally born sharks gradually declined with increasing shark size, indicating that dispersal is relatively slow and does not primarily occur after sharks reach a threshold size. Local conservation measures (e.g. localized fishery closures, marine protected areas) can therefore help protect island-born lemon sharks even after they leave the nursery habitat.
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