Removal of Cape Fear River Locks and Dams
Could Improve Fish Populations.

November 16, 2006
From Jodie B. Owen, NC WRC.
and Bob Curry, NC WRC.
Edited by Bill Byrd.

When Carbonton Dam (Image left by Jason Julian) was removed in January 2005, and the Deep River along the Lee/Moore County line flowed freely for the first time in nearly a century, restoring traditional fish passages and linking fish and mussel populations that have been separated since 1921.

Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission expect the dam's removal to benefit aquatic wildlife by re-opening more than 10 miles of river to a number of fish and mussel species that depend on free-flowing water to survive.

The N.C. Dam Removal Task Force, a contingent of state and federal agencies, identified Carbonton Dam in 2004 as one of several dams in the state that, if removed, would result in significant ecological benefit, including improved water quality and aquatic habitat.

Biologists from the Commission, N.C. State University, the N.C. Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences saw the dam's removal as an excellent research opportunity. Over the past year, they have sampled several sites upstream, in the impoundment, and downstream from the dam to determine what species were present in the different habitats.

What they found was a diversity of aquatic wildlife, including mussels, such as the eastern elliptio, triangle floater and Roanoke slabshell, as well as popular game fishes, including largemouth bass and redbreast sunfish. They also found several species of nongame fishes, such as the whitefin shiner, the rare Carolina redhorse and the federally endangered Cape Fear Shiner, a small minnow found only in a few locations in the Cape Fear River basin.

Biologists will continue sampling over the next few years to document any changes in fish and mussel populations that may occur once the impounded habitat is restored and fish movement is unrestricted up and down the Deep River.

With the dam's removal the river level will fall approximately 15 feet, making the Commission's Carbonton Boating Access Area off Hwy. 42 in Moore County unusable. However, Restoration Systems, the environmental restoration company that purchased the dam and was charged with the dam's demolition, was charged with constructing a new access area for canoes and non-motorized boats at the current dam site.

Sampling efforts on the Deep River are part of the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, which benefits the health of fish, wildlife and people by conserving wildlife and natural places.

These efforts are funded through the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, which is the primary source of state funds for the Commission's Faunal Diversity and Aquatic Nongame programs. The Commission uses this fund, which supports nongame species research and management, to generate matching money for federal grants.

To find out more about North Carolina's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund or the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, visit the Commission's Web site, at the end of this article.

The Project Continues
in 2006

The removal of three more obsolete dams in North Carolina could improve recreational and commercial fisheries for striped bass, American shad, hickory shad, and help tremendously in restoration efforts for river herring, Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon.

The demolition of locks and dams No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 along the Cape Fear River would restore very important spawning and nursery habitat for these migratory fish in the river, and increases in their populations would likely result, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

If recovery of the striped bass, American shad and hickory shad populations happened as predicted, recreational and commercial fisheries for these fish would improve.

Coastal marine fisheries would benefit also because juvenile shad and herring spawned in fresh waters migrate downstream to the ocean and provide an important prey base for other popular fish species, such as red drum, flounder, bluefish and seatrout.

"The combined effects of increased shad and striped bass populations along with the benefits of an increase forage base for other game fish could potentially generate millions of dollars annually to North Carolina's economy," said Mike Wicker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "River herring and sturgeon, species that are at all time record low numbers, would greatly benefit by once again having access to their historic spawning and nursery area habitats."

Nationwide, removal of old and non-functioning dams from rivers and waterways is a growing trend. Many small dams that once provided water power to turn grist mills or saw blades now serve no useful function but block migratory fish from their historic spawning and nursery areas.

In North Carolina, the removal in 1998 of Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River near Raleigh resulted in migratory striped bass and American shad being able to reach their former spawning grounds. Since removal of Quaker Neck Dam, other smaller dams on Little River, a tributary of Neuse River, have reopened many more miles of spawning habitat as well.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates Lock and Dams No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 on the Cape Fear River, and these structures are no longer used for navigation, which was their intended purpose. The Corps is interested in "decommissioning" the dams and is currently studying their options as part of a General Reevaluation Report for the Wilmington Harbor Deepening Project.

Although the Cape Fear River locks and dams were not designed for water supply, Wilmington, Fayetteville and other local users depend on impounded waters behind these dams for their water supply source. The fishery agencies are committed to working in partnership with these water users and other agencies to find water supply solutions that will satisfy municipal water needs before any of the three Cape Fear River lock and dams are removed.

State and federal fishery agencies promoting removal of these dams are anxious to work collaboratively with municipalities and citizen groups to restore fisheries habitat in North Carolina's coastal rivers.

"The benefits of restoring healthy fish populations in the state's rivers and streams go far beyond the enjoyment of just catching a fish," said Bob Curry, chief of the Wildlife Resources Commission's Division of Inland Fisheries. "They extend to our economy, to our culture and to our dedication to conserving our rich heritage of natural resources."

For more information click on The North Carolina WRD Website or call the Wildlife Resources Commission at (919) 707-0398.

For a complete listing of Streams of North Carolina, launch sites, and stream ratings, plus more information click on Piedmont Streams Fishing Guide of North Carolina a tremendous resource created by fisheries biologists Corey Oakley and Brian McRae.