The Cape Fear River Partnership

The Cape Fear River Partnership was formed in 2011 with a vision of a healthy Cape Fear River for fish and people. The partnership's mission is to restore and demonstrate the value of robust, productive, and self-sustaining stocks of migratory fish in the Cape Fear River. Building on the momentum of the newly constructed fish passage at Lock & Dam #1, this partnership of key federal, state, local, academic, and otherorganizations in the region is working together on this multi-year action plan. Using a broad range of tools and capabilities, we seek to provide long-term, habitat-based solutions for the most pressing challenges for migratory fish.

The partnership strives to measure achievement of our mission with the following targets: increased fish populations (as measured by catch-per-unit efforts, improved age structure, and other techniques), increased recreational fishing success for shad, striped bass, and river herring (as measured by creel surveys), and a re-opened striped bass and river herring harvest in the Cape Fear River.

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Cape Fear River Basin Action Plan for Migratory Fish

Executive Summary

The Cape Fear River and Migratory Fish

The Cape Fear River once supported thriving migratory fish populations including American shad, sturgeon, river herring, American eel, and striped bass. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Cape Fear River was one of the most productive rivers for American shad in North Carolina. Migratory fish populations within the Cape Fear River basin have declined substantially over the past two centuries, with current commercial landings 87 percent lower than historic estimates. State and federal agencies have limited or banned the direct harvest of many of these species to protect the diminished populations, establishing harvest moratoriums for shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, river herring and striped bass. Harvest reductions and restrictions are in place for American shad and American eel.

These protections alone are not enough to sustain and increase the stocks of migratory fish in the Cape Fear River. Unfortunately, the river's migratory fish suffer from numerous threats that impact their numbers. There are now more than 1,100 dams in the basin, including those built to produce hydroelectric power and store drinking water, which block fish from returning to their historic spawning areas and thereby limit their abundance. Land clearing for development, industry, forestry, and agriculture can reduce riparian buffers (trees and vegetation along riverbanks) that serve to filter out excess nutrients and other pollutants from entering the river. Engineered water withdrawals, reservoirs, and inter-basin water transfers (where water is moved from one river basin to another for human use) alter the amount of water in the river—an essential aspect of migratory fish habitat health.


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Managing Migratory Fish

One of the inherent challenges in managing fish, particularly migratory fish, is that they spend their lives instinctively crisscrossing our human-created, geo-political jurisdictions. In the Cape Fear River basin, species such as American shad, striped bass, and sturgeon are born in the upper reaches of the river, and then swim down to the sea where they spend several years before attempting to return upstream to spawn and begin the life cycle anew. These treks span municipal, county, and eventually state boundaries, but elsewhere in the country they span international boundaries as well.

Migratory fish and their habitat provide innumerable benefits to the human communities surrounding the river. We know that these fish are part of the national $179 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry (National Marine Fisheries Service 2012) and that the habitats in and around the river that support migratory fish are critical to the ecological health of the basin. And we know that the quality of the river affects the health of the fish and humans. The river and its inhabitants are a large part of the community’s heritage and culture.

Recognizing the economic, ecological, social, and cultural importance of migratory fish in the Cape Fear River basin, and striving to create a spirit of focused collaboration that transcends political boundaries, the multiple stakeholders comprising the Cape Fear River Partnership set out to develop this Cape Fear River Basin Action Plan for Migratory Fish.

Cape Fear River Basin Action Plan for Migratory Fish

Using the best available information and expert knowledge, and built upon the work of other existing conservation plans, this Action Plan acknowledges several problem statements related to the health of migratory fish stocks in the Cape Fear River basin. These problem statements are nested under three goals. Sets of actions are designed to restore fish passage and improve habitat and water quality to revitalize populations of migratory fish and improve the overall condition of the river.

The specific actions developed under each of these primary goals range from: assessments that establish baseline conditions; direct conservation of habitat; development of regulatory and voluntary strategies that enhance conservation efforts; and outreach and education activities to inform the community, to identification of funding opportunities that support the work outlined in the Action Plan. These were conceived as actions that can be taken separately, yet in a parallel and coordinated fashion by a variety of federal, state, local, academic, industry, and non-governmental organizations.

Action Plan Implementation

The partnership compiled a list of potential funding sources and established an Implementation Team that will track progress towards the goals established in the plan, seek solutions to obstacles, and adjust the plan as necessary. The Cape Fear River community will be able to connect to this process through the team’s published annual progress reports, partnership website, and other venues such as outreach events and partner websites.

One of the first tasks of the team will be to establish a working group that will complete the development of a third goal for the Action Plan—engaging new stakeholders and increasing interest in improving fish passage and habitat conditions for migratory fish by communicating socioeconomic values associated with such improvements. A problem statement and actions related to this goal were outlined by the partnership during the process of completing the plan. These actions are designed to quantitatively and qualitatively measure the socioeconomic benefits of the conservation actions identified within this Action Plan, and to effectively communicate those benefits to the public.

We are looking forward to working together with partners and stakeholders to implement the actions in this plan. Restoration of fish access and improvement and protection of habitat and water quality will produce outcomes that benefit the fish, wildlife, and people living in the Cape Fear River basin.