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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Habitat and Enhancement

Marine Fisheries

Home is where the habitat is

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 North Carolina Fish Habitat Fast Facts

  • North Carolina is home to over 2.5 million acres of estuarine waters, more than any other state on the East Coast
  • In addition to providing a home for fish, wetlands and oyster reefs provide “free” wastewater treatment and storm protection services, saving tax payers money.
  • Since most fish migrate throughout North Carolina's estuarine and marine waters throughout their lifecycle, a complex of habitats must be maintained to ensure survival and growth, from the headwaters to the sea.

Home is Where the Habitat is

While much of the concern over declining fish stocks has been pointed at overfishing, habitat loss and degradation can make a stock more susceptible to decline. The effect of habitat loss and degradation can be indicated by the lack of recovery of certain stocks after fishing pressure is reduced. For example, river herring stocks have not recovered despite reduced fishing effort and a fishing moratorium. Although the role of environmental factors in the river herring decline is uncertain, the center of river herring abundance (Chowan and Roanoke rivers) has suffered from water quality problems since the 1970s. There have also been stream obstructions and flow alterations in these rivers.

stool diagram

In 1997, due to concerns about declining fishery resources in North Carolina, The N.C. General Assembly passed the Fisheries Reform Act. The law is described as a three-legged stool to support healthy fisheries. One leg of the law addresses fishery management, another leg addresses habitat loss and the third addresses water quality degradation. All three legs are needed to sustain coastal fisheries. The law recognizes the importance of having sufficient quantity of quality habitat to support fish species throughout their life history. Because of the relationship between habitat and fish populations, the law contains the directive to protect and enhance habitats supporting coastal fisheries through the creation of a Coastal Habitat Protection Plan.

What is Habitat?

Habitat is the physical space that an organism uses to fulfill its basic requirements for life, such as food, water, oxygen and shelter. Put simply, habitat is where something lives. Habitat can be thought of in very general terms or very complex ones. For example, a certain fish’s habitat may be described simply as “saltwater” or as complex as areas where the water has a salt concentration greater than 30.0 parts per thousand, a water depth less than 10 feet, a water temperature between 24 and 32 degrees Celsius, and where vegetation covers more than 75 percent of the substrate.

North Carolina has a diversity of fish habitat crucial to coastal fisheries. North Carolina’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan breaks fish habitat into six groups known to be home to important fisheries species at many points in their life:

North Carolina's Fish Habitats:

   
Hard Bottom Soft Bottom Shell Bottom
Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
Water Column Wetlands

 

These habitats represent areas where coastal fishery species forage, seek refuge, grow, or spawn. The protection of these areas is critical to the protection and endurance of North Carolina's fishery resources and the ways of life they support.

Often a single habitat is not enough to describe where organisms might live; most fish will utilize multiple habitats over the course of their life and many will utilize more than one habitat in the course of a single day.

Flounder - estuary graphic

 

Life cycle of the southern flounder

  1. Adults spawn in near-shore ocean waters around hard bottom habitat in late winter months.
  2. Larvae drift through the water column on currents, eventually passing through inlets and to the estuary beyond.
  3. Small juveniles settle out of the water column in upper, low-salinity estuaries containing marsh wetlands and shallow soft bottom habitat.
  4. Large juveniles move throughout the estuary foraging on crabs and small fish living in oyster reefs, along the marsh edge and among seagrass beds. Once the juvenile flounder recruit to the adult population, the cycle is completed and begins again.
N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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