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Effective population size (Ne) determines the strength of genetic drift in a population and has long been recognized as an important parameter for evaluating conservation status and threats to genetic health of populations. Specifically, an estimate of Ne is crucial to management because it integrates genetic effects with the life history of the species, allowing for predictions of a population’s current and future viability. Nevertheless, compared with ecological and demographic parameters, Ne has had limited influence on species management, beyond its application in very small populations. Recent developments have substantially improved Ne estimation; however, some obstacles remain for the practical application of Ne estimates. For example, the need to define the spatial and temporal scale of measurement makes the concept complex and sometimes difficult to interpret. We reviewed approaches to estimation of Ne over both long-term and contemporary time frames, clarifying their interpretations with respect to local populations and the global metapopulation. We describe multiple experimental factors affecting robustness of contemporary Ne estimates and suggest that different sampling designs can be combined to compare largely independent measures of Ne for improved confidence in the result. Large populations with moderate gene flow pose the greatest challenges to robust estimation of contemporary Ne and require careful consideration of sampling and analysis to minimize estimator bias. We emphasize the practical utility of estimating Ne by highlighting its relevance to the adaptive potential of a population and describing applications in management of marine populations, where the focus is not always on critically endangered populations. Two cases discussed include the mechanisms generating Ne estimates many orders of magnitude lower than census N in harvested marine fishes and the predicted reduction in Ne from hatchery-based population supplementation.