Southeast & Caribbean Region

Map of Cape Fear Basin

Map of Cape Fear Basin.Photo Credit: NOAA

Area Overview

The Cape Fear River is North Carolina’s largest river basin that is completely contained within the state’s borders, with its headwaters stretching from northwest of Greensboro to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean at Bald Head Island and Fort Caswell. The basin covers 9,000 square miles and is 200 miles in length with more than 6,000 miles of tributaries. Over two million people, more than one third of North Carolina’s population, live within the basin.

The Cape Fear basin is the only major river basin in North Carolina to empty directly into the Atlantic Ocean. This direct connection was and continues to be important today for the movement of local goods for shipment overseas.  Early settlers in the basin moved natural resources downriver, where they were loaded onto ocean-going vessels. As trade on the river increased, so did efforts to make navigation of the river easier. Over time, the river was dredged and channelized, and locks and dams were constructed to facilitate commercial navigation. These activities were not without impact to the fisheries of the river.

The Cape Fear River once supported thriving stocks of migratory American shad, river herring, sturgeon and striped bass, however these populations have declined substantially over the past two centuries. Current commercial landings for American shad are 87% lower than historic estimates.  Harvest of striped bass and river herring is prohibited. Sturgeon which were so numerous in the basin in the 1800’s that they made drift fishing in the river mouth difficult, had declined drastically by the early 1900’s due to blockages to historic spawning habitat and overfishing. Today overfishing, declining water quality and habitat, and blockage of upstream spawning migrations have continued to limit these once thriving populations of migratory fish and the ecologic and economic systems they support.

Proposed Habitat Conservation Objective(s)

Restoration of migratory species of the Cape Fear River through barrier removal, riverine habitat conservation projects, and improved water management.  Migratory fish species include the endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, and commercially and recreationally significant species, including American shad, American eel, striped bass and river herring. Restoration of these species, their habitats, and river connectivity will provide benefits to coastal and ocean ecosystems and food webs that support resilient commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Aerial view of rock-arch ramp for fish passage at Lock and Dam

Aerial view of rock-arch ramp for fish passage at Lock and Dam #1 on the Cape Fear River. Photo Credit: Alan Cradick

Potential to Fulfill Habitat Blueprint Outcomes

Existing efforts in the Cape Fear River Basin bring about a unique opportunity to fulfill all of the desired outcomes of the Habitat Blueprint. NOAA has a history of investment in this system, including the development and ongoing support of a strong and active Partnership that created a migratory fish restoration plan. This plan charts the course for restoration through clear objectives and detailed actions.  The successful removal of migratory barriers, enhancement to riverine habitats, and development of improved water management strategies focused on enhanced community resilience, will set the course towards sustainable fish populations, recovery of endangered species and protection of their habitats, and increased recreational and economic opportunities for the basin.





NOAA’s Role

  • NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation initiated the formation of the Cape Fear River Partnership, a collaborative effort consisting of 31 partner organizations representing federal, state, local, NGO, industry and academic entities.  This partnership is locally led and the Coordinator is supported by NOAA. The mission and goals of the partnership (migratory fish passage) are directly correlated with the primary objective of the proposed Cape Fear HFA.
  • NOAA’s Habitat Restoration Center works with local agencies and community stakeholders to restore aquatic habitats of the Cape Fear Basin though grant programs. Recently, the Restoration Center partnered with Cape Fear River Watch to implement a migratory fish spawning habitat assessment and enhancement project on the mainstem of the river.
  • NOAA’s Damage Assessment and Restoration Program is actively engaged with other federal and state Trustee partners in the assessment of damaged habitats and replacement of lost ecosystem services. The program works with responsible parties and utilizes settlement funds to implement large-scale restoration projects that serve as compensation for habitat damages.
Sportfishing on the Cape Fear River

Sportfishing on the Cape Fear River. Photo Credit: NOAA

  • NOAA’s Southeast Regional Office Habitat Conservation Division works to protect, conserve, enhance and restore habitat for commercially and recreationally important species of fish and shellfish by providing technical assistance, guidance and conservation recommendations to other federal, state and local agencies through Magnuson-Stevens Act and Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act consultations and stewardship activities.
  • NOAA’s National Weather Service, Hydrometerology Testbed (HMT) has initiated a pilot study in North Carolina to improve understanding and forecasting of storms to enhance coastal community resilience to facing flooding and economic losses. These types of forecasting can also inform water management decisions affecting migratory fisheries and associated habitats, such as development of a water balance model to characterize tributary flows, identify water demands and availability, and define instream flow needs for endangered fish species.
  • NOAA’s National Ocean Service, Coastal Services Center (CSC) has been analyzing Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) data as part of a larger National Ocean Policy project to study coastal wetland loss trends along the coast of the US. An analysis of the Cape Fear Basin has already been conducted and NOS and NMFS are working together to report the findings and next steps for conserving more coastal wetlands habitats that benefit migratory fish species.
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