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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Coastal Management - FAQ: Masonboro Island Reserve

Coastal Management

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FAQ: Masonboro Island Reserve

Masonboro Island is a component of the N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve (NCNERR).  The NCNERR is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and is managed as a state-federal partnership between the N.C. Division of Coastal Management (DCM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The NCNERR is also part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve, a codified program of the Coastal Area Management Act administered by the DCM. 

Masonboro Island is not a park, but a protected research reserve that provides essential habitat for wildlife, and serves as a living laboratory for researchers, scientists, and educators. The state’s 10 Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve sites are also available for compatible traditional uses, including recreational activities such as birding, kayaking, and walking. 

Is the state considering closing Masonboro Island to the public?
No, there are no plans or draft rules underway to close Masonboro Island to the public. This possibility was raised a few years ago in response to several incidents that took place on the island during summer holiday weekends, when hundreds of people used the island as a place to hold parties, posing a serious public safety risk that greatly concerned DCM staff, and resulting in mountains of trash being left behind. Those events were a clear violation of the rules regarding use of the reserve as outlined in the N.C. Administrative Code (NCAC 07O), and had the potential to impose lasting damage to the island’s ecosystem and wildlife. The Division of Coastal Management, with assistance from local law enforcement and volunteer groups, has been able to manage these activities in recent years, without resorting to closing the island on those holidays.

One of the primary purposes of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve program is to accommodate traditional uses of the reserve properties, as long as they do not disturb the reserve environment or interfere with research and education activities. DCM is committed to keeping these unique, undeveloped areas available for compatible traditional public use.

Is the state considering additional restrictions on public use of Masonboro Island?
DCM is currently evaluating the Reserve Use Requirements in the N.C. Administrative Code (15A NCAC 07O.0202) and is considering refinements to the rules to better clarify and articulate how the reserve sites should be used to balance both protection of the ecosystems and public use. We have seen a tremendous increase in use – and misuse – over the years at all of the reserve sites, not just at Masonboro. These rules have not been substantially updated in 25 years, and did not anticipate the types and levels of public use that the reserve sites currently receive.  The public will have many opportunities for input on any draft rule changes through the Masonboro Island Local Advisory Committee, public meetings and public hearings as required by the rules review process.

The leash requirement for dogs on the island is not a new rule imposed by DCM, but is in fact a New Hanover County ordinance, which applies to Masonboro Island because it is located within the county boundaries. State-owned properties such as Masonboro Island and the other reserve sites are not automatically exempt from local laws and ordinances.

Why do we even need rules for using the island?
All publicly owned and managed lands are subject to rules that provide for specific purposes to be served and goals to be accomplished. For example, state and local parks have rules about when resources may be used, where specific types of activities can take place, and whether some types of activities are not appropriate for a given location. The Reserve sites are similarly publicly owned and managed and have a similar need for rules to protect the lands for research, education and conservation, while still allowing traditional public use.

How is Masonboro Island managed and protected?
Masonboro Island is currently protected as part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and as one of the four components of the N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve. The NCNERR is managed through a state-federal partnership between the N.C. Division of Coastal Management and NOAA. As part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, the NCNERR must maintain an approved management plan to guide management of the components within the reserve for its research and education purposes.  The NCNERR is currently operating from its 2009-2014 management plan approved by NOAA. The management plan is available on the reserve program website at

Masonboro Island is also protected as a State Nature Preserve by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program. Management input for the site also comes from a Local Advisory Committee, as required byrule. The overall goal of stewardship of the NCNERR is to protect or restore the natural integrity of each site and ensure a suitable environment for coastal research and education.

How does the Local Advisory Committee work?
A Local Advisory Committee for Masonboro Island provides DCM staff with guidance and feedback regarding management of the reserve site. The committee is not a decision-making body, but an advisory group.  The committee is composed of local residents, partners and leaders in the environmental community, who are appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Many of the committee members serve in professional capacities with conservation organizations or government agencies, and are also long-term, frequent recreational users of the island.  The committee meets regularly to discuss management of the reserve.  The N.C. Administrative Code requires that the DCM maintain an advisory committee for each component within the reserve.

The Masonboro Island Reserve’s Local Advisory Committee provides input only on management of the Masonboro Island site and has had no role in management decisions about closing of beaches at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, federally-owned land managed by the National Park Service.

How does DCM protect and manage wildlife on the island?
DCM staff work with staff and students from UNC-Wilmington, along with citizen volunteers, to monitor sea turtle nests, marsh and shore birds, diamondback terrapins, and other wildlife on the island. The staff recently conducted workshops to train volunteers for the summer season.

Non-native species, particularly red fox, have become an issue on Masonboro Island in recent years, and are known to prey on sea turtle nests. DCM is considering possibilities to combat this problem. Unfortunately, management of predators is costly, requires long-term maintenance and is not always completely successful. Reserve staff is monitoring fox activity on the island through twice-yearly surveys while seeking to recruit an outside researcher with interest in predators and listed species conservation. DCM staff has investigated fox removal services and costs of removal.  DCM feels that its limited available funds are best used to provide seasonal staff and equipment and materials for monitoring programs to ensure that data collection efforts continue uninterrupted. 

What facilities are available on the island?
Masonboro Island is completely undeveloped, with no facilities of any kind. This approach helps to maintain the pristine natural character of the site. It also means that there are no trash cans, no restrooms, no fresh water sources and no lifeguards. Visitors to the island should be prepared for a remote experience and plan to carry all trash and wastes out with them. For a safe and enjoyable experience, visitors should understand the tides, pay attention to the weather, and plan ahead to have all necessary supplies for the amount of time they will be on the island.

Is camping allowed on Masonboro Island?
Camping and campfires are allowed. Areas that are clear of vegetation and show evidence of previous camping and campfires should be used whenever possible. Firewood is not available on the island and damage to or use of native vegetation is prohibited, so campers intending to build a campfire need to bring a supply of firewood. Campfires should be built away from vegetated areas. Burning and burying of camping trash is not appropriate. Even organic wastes should be packed out, as food items left on the island provide a source of supplemental nutrition for non-native predators such as red fox. This can result in damage to sea turtle and shorebird nests and can lead to animals becoming unafraid of humans and associating humans with food.

What is the purpose of the reserve program?
The N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve sites have been established to protect unique coastal and estuarine environments so they will be available for research and education. More specifically, as outlined in 15A NCAC 07O .0101, the principal purposes of the program are to:

  1. preserve coastal ecosystems representative of the various biogeographic regions and typologies in North Carolina and to make them available for continuous future study of the processes, functions and influences which shape and sustain the coastal ecosystems;

  2. provide new information on coastal ecosystem processes to decision-makers as a basis for the promotion of sound management of coastal resources;

  3. provide a focal point for educational activities that increase the public awareness and understanding of coastal ecosystems, effects of man on them and the importance of the coastal systems to the state and the nation;

  4. accommodate traditional recreational activities, commercial fishing and other uses of the Reserve as long as they do not disturb the Reserve environment and are compatible with the research and educational activities taking place there.

Learn more about the reserves


Last Modified:July 27, 2011


N.C. Division of Coastal Management . 400 Commerce Ave. Morehead City, NC 28557
1-888-4RCOAST .Email Us


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