North Carolina's Estuarine Nursery System
Salt marshes and other shallow estuarine areas serve as nursery areas for 90 percent of saltwater fish and shellfish in North Carolina. They are called nursery areas because the food supply, protective cover, bottom type, salinity levels, water temperature and other factors are all conducive to the development of young fish and shellfish. Many fish and shellfish spend a major portion of their initial growing season in nursery areas.
North Carolina was the first state to designate nursery areas to protect these fragile ecosystems. Certain activities are prohibited in designated nursery areas to protect the juvenile fish and habitat during this critical part of their life cycle. Today our nursery system serves as a model for other states. Designated nursery areas in coastal waters total more than 160,000 acres of water and wetlands.
There are three categories of nursery areas in North Carolina coastal waters:
Primary Nursery Areas are where larvae first move into and begin to grow. These areas are usually shallow with soft muddy bottoms and are surrounded by marshes and other wetland vegetation that provide protection from predators. Low salinity and the abundance of suitable food in these areas are ideal for young fish and shellfish to grow and survive.
To protect fragile juveniles, many commercial fishing activities are prohibited in these waters, including the use of trawl nets, seine nets, dredges or any mechanical methods used for taking clams or oysters. Violating these rules is a misdemeanor criminal offense that carries penalties of a fine and/or community service requirements. There are also rules regarding navigational dredging activities and water quality standards, adopted by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission:
There are approximately 77,000 acres designated as primary nursery areas in coastal North Carolina.
Secondary Nursery Areas are those areas where older juveniles continue to grow. Populations are composed of juvenile fish of similar size that have migrated from an upstream primary nursery area to a secondary nursery area farther down in the estuary. As they develop and grow, young fish and shellfish, such as blue crabs, shrimp, spot and flounder move into these waters.
Trawling is not allowed in secondary nursery areas.
There are approximately 48,000 acres designated as secondary nursery areas in coastal North Carolina.
Special Secondary Nursery Areas are located adjacent to secondary nursery areas, but they are usually closer to the open waters of a sound and the ocean.
These areas are closed to trawling for the majority of the year when juvenile fish and shellfish are abundant, but may be opened to trawling once most juveniles have left the area.
There are approximately 37,000 acres designated as special secondary nursery areas in coastal North Carolina.
|N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • (252) 726-7021 or 1-800-682-2632 |