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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - N.C. Coastal Habitats

Marine Fisheries

Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Hard Bottom Shell Bottom Soft Bottom Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Water Column Wetlands

North Carolina's Coastal Habitat Protection Plan recognizes six habitats crucial to coastal fishery species. These six habitats occur within an area covering 2.3 million acres of water and coastal wetlands, including the largest estuarine system of any coastal state on the eastern seaboard. These habitats represent areas where coastal fishery species forage, seek refuge, grow, or spawn.

North Carolina's Fish Habitats:

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

Habitat Concerns

North Carolina's estuaries and coastal ocean are showing signs of habitat degradation and loss such as increasing shellfish harvest closures, large extent of impaired waters, frequent algal blooms and fish kills, and declines in seagrass extent. Threats to coastal fish habitat come from a variety of sources. Habitat degradation not only impacts fish, but coastal economies.

Fish Habitats are Interdependent

Often fish use multiple habitats over their lifetime. In fact some fish use multiple habitats in a single day, and its not too hard to imagine a fish using all these habitats in the same day. This mobility between habitats that fish demonstrate means that to protect North Carolina's fishery resources we cannot simply protect one habitat. Southern flounder is an example of an estuarine species that uses different habitats and waters throughout its life cycle.

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.
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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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