Stay connected with us
around the nation »

Conserving the Cape Fear River for Fish and People

April 16, 2012

Captain Jamie Rushing makes sure his boat is ready for the Striper Tournament. Photo Credit: Cape Fear River Watch

Captains await the start of the tournament in the Cape Fear River in front of the historic USS North Carolina Battleship. Photo Credit: Cape Fear River Watch

The Cape Fear River action plan will: 

  • Identify threats to healthy migratory fish populations

  • Implement actions to improve water quality, habitat conditions, and fish passage for migratory fish

  • Determine socioeconomic benefits of improved migratory fish populations


Kayakers on the river. Photo Credit: Cape Fear River Watch










The Cape Fear River Basin stretches across 9,000 square miles, making it one of the largest watersheds in North Carolina. Migratory fish in this river and in other watersheds across the country need help—fish like American shad, Atlantic striped bass, river herring, and endangered short nose and Atlantic sturgeon populations face impaired streams, poor habitat quality, and blocked access to historic migratory habitat. These populations are also economically and culturally important to North Carolinian recreational fishermen. However, the watershed problems found in the Cape Fear River are also found throughout the United States, so anglers everywhere face them.

What’s the Plan?

In response to these challenges, NOAA and partners are collaborating to develop and implement a multi-year watershed action plan that will improve migratory fish populations and river habitat in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River watershed. Many federal, state, academic, industry, and non-governmental organizations are pledging their time and efforts to help solve the most pressing challenges for migratory fish. This coordinated effort may serve as a bellwhether for other watersheds across the country. Current partners for the initiative include:

  • NOAA
  • Cape Fear River Watch
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • North Carolina State University
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • City of Wilmington
  • N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • University of North Carolina
  • American Rivers
  • N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

Not only will the plan benefit fish and their habitat, it will bring socioeconomic benefits for communities surrounding the Cape Fear River basin who depend on its abundant water supply and rich recreational opportunities. While other action plans tend to focus on one isolated problem at a time, this plan will address protection and restoration challenges from multiple approaches, using a range of partnering authorities and tools to help these fish populations.

One of the plan’s partners, Cape Fear River Watch, likens this kind of conservation as a way to speak for the body of water itself. “We try to be the voice of the river. People should know that right now, the river is not healthy,” said Cape Fear River Watch Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette. “But there are solutions, and big steps are being taken to implement them. We’re getting really great support from the fishing communities, and tagging programs for these fish are great opportunities to make a difference—the more we know about the fish, the more we can help restore them."

Why Declining Fish Populations Matter

Many of the fish found in the Cape Fear River are anadromous. That means they spend most of their life at sea but return to fresh water rivers to spawn, and their numbers are significantly down in the Cape Fear River. Dams built in the early 1900s to allow commerce to move up and down the river have since blocked fish passage to river areas where they would traditionally spawn.

So why do these declining migratory fish populations matter? Fishery biologists assess that healthy populations reflect a healthy river. Removing these populations from the ecosystem has dramatic effects and unintended consequences for the whole system—whether it’s shad and herring, which provide bait for North Carolina’s important marine species like drum and trout, or endangered species like short nose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. Keeping the Cape Fear in good shape means working hard to restore these fish populations.

2012 Striper Tournament

Many recreational fishermen aid river conservation and research efforts by participating in local events on the river. Cape Fear River Watch holds an annual tag and release Striper Tournament where recreational fishermen cast their lures to help researchers learn more about striped bass, a fishery that was closed to anglers in the mid-1980s to help protect declining numbers.

“The Striper Tournament is our big push to let the public know how important the Cape Fear River fishery is and to raise money for our efforts to restore it and improve water quality in the river,” Burdette said. Anglers snagged 33 striped bass in this year's tournament, 11 of which were outfitted with sonic tags—all released back into the river to be tracked by scientists.

“Our river used to have a very healthy population of striped bass and we know coastal communities depend on these populations. When they’re healthy, people can take their kids out fishing," Burdette said. "There’s a real economic importance too, besides the environmental and recreational need to restore these migratory fish populations.” Communities along the Cape Fear River benefit from fishing business and commerce when populations are healthy. 

Next Steps

With a fishway at the first barrier underway, partners will continue to develop the large-scale action plan with the intention to implement restoration actions in 2013. This plan will provide much-needed aid for the river’s fish populations, habitat conditions, and recreational opportunities—so that many more generations may enjoy the Cape Fear River and all it offers.