BACKGROUND: Genetic estimates of effective population size often generate surprising results, including dramatically low ratios of effective population size to census size. This is particularly true for many marine species, and this effect has been associated with hypotheses of "sweepstakes" reproduction and selective hitchhiking. RESULTS: Here we show that in advective environments such as oceans and rivers, the mean asymmetric transport of passively dispersed reproductive propagules will act to limit the effective population size in species with a drifting developmental stage. As advection increases, effective population size becomes decoupled from census size as the persistence of novel genetic lineages is restricted to those that arise in a small upstream portion of the species domain. CONCLUSION: This result leads to predictions about the maintenance of diversity in advective systems, and complements the "sweepstakes" hypothesis and other hypotheses proposed to explain cases of low allelic diversity in species with high fecundity. We describe the spatial extent of the species domain in which novel allelic diversity will be retained, thus determining how large an appropriately placed marine reserve must be to allow the persistence of endemic allelic diversity.