THE ALBEMARLE SOUND
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The Albemarle Sound touches the lives of all who live or vacation here. Generations of folk have reaped bounty from the Sound and the fertile lands surrounding it. Its shores and waters have been a source of pleasure and beauty for all. The Sound is actually part of a vast body of highly productive waters known as the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary, whose health depends on the stewardship of those who use it.
When early explorers sailed up the Albemarle Sound in 1586, they rode out gale winds, skirmished with hostile Indians, and faced near starvation as they navigated the fifty-five mile long stretch of water. Yet what they found “freshe water with great store of fishe” pleased them greatly.
Flanked by nine counties and fed by nine rivers, the Sound's water is mostly fresh to brackish. Ocean water flowing through Oregon Inlet is quickly diluted by fresh water from rivers.
Two major rivers, the Chowan and Roanoke, receive much of their flow from tributaries in Virginia. Altogether, the Albemarle Sound<N>system drains an impressive 18,000 square-mile area in two states, so far-distant land uses can directly affect its health.
Surrounded by low-lying coastal plain, the Sound and its rivers, creeks and bays create over 500 miles of shoreline, with 350 miles of navigable water. High banks and bluffs, marsh and swamp forest fringe the shores and act as buffers against local storms. Testimony to old, eroded shorelines are baldcypress trees “some with huge osprey nests” standing solitary in open water.
Unlike many estuaries, water levels in the Sound are governed by sweep of wind, and not by lunar tides. Easterly winds will drive water to the west, and northerly winds will cause water to build up along southern shores.
The Sound can be treacherous. It's about 18 feet deep in the middle but threaded with shoals and bars near shore, a situation colonial sailors were quick to note. Early on, duties were imposed on ships to maintain beacons and stakes as navigational aids.
A half century after the first exploration of the Sound, colonists began to move south overland from Virginia. Like the Algonquian Indians before them, who skimmed the Sound in hollowed-out canoes and trapped fish in labyrinthine weirs of poles and reeds, colonists settled alongside bays and creeks to farm, fish and trade.
The Sound soon became a busy thoroughfare. Coasters, small sailing vessels, carried cargo to and from other colonies. Larger craft bound for the West Indies loaded salt herring, lumber, tobacco, and corn in exchange for rum, spices, silk, and sugar.
With a maze of roadless swamps surrounding settlements, ferries became a primary means of travel. By 1734 ferry service across the Sound linked Edenton to Mackey's Ferry, near Roper. This ferry operated for over 200 years, hauling mighty railroad cars, until a bridge across the Sound opened in 1938.
Early saw mills carved up the great forests. Shipyards abounded, fed by virgin stands of cypress, oak and pine. Tar, pitch, and turpentine, along with masts, staves and shingles were exported. Eastern North Carolina led the world in producing and exporting naval stores for over a hundred years, until the great forests were gone.
Land cleared by lumbering was tilled and farmed, for according to one eloquent colonist in 1654, the area was endowed with a “most fertile, gallant rich soil, flourishing in all the abundance ofnature....” Arable soil, slave labor, and bountiful fisheries fostered the growth of large plantations, some of the finest in the South.
The herring and herring roe of Albemarle Sound quickly won widespread fame. In late spring, plantation workers would seine for shad, striped bass and herring. Nets were often more than a mile long and were manned 24 hours a day, with both men and women cleaning and processing fish for export. Herring was cut and salted, while shad was packed in ice and sent by steamer up the Chowan River for rail shipment to the north. The striped bass fishery was also important, and many an ardent fisherman considered Albemarle Sound the striped bass capital of the world. Bass tournaments attracted sports fishermen from miles around.
CRADLE OF LIFE
Estuaries, where salt water from the sea meets fresh water from rivers, are nurseries for many fish. Sunlight penetrates shallow water. Creeks, swamps and marshes supply organic matter that is converted to nutrients. These nutrients, in turn, feed growths of algae, or phytoplankton, that are the foundation of the food web.
As plankton bloom in Sound waters, striped bass, shad and herring swim upriver to spawn. When the eggs hatch, the young drift downstream to feast on a ready-made food supply. At the same time, Atlantic croaker and spot are spawning in the ocean. Their youngsters drift into the Sound and settle in shallow bays and coves to feed. This all works to a rhythm of sun and seasons which has been perfected over millennia.
The Sound is host to resident fish, too, those that live here year-round. Catfish and perch have become important resources as traditional catches of herring and striped bass have declined. And as salt water creeps toward western shores in dry summers, the blue crab is sought by commercial and recreational fishermen alike.
At least 17 kinds of waterfowl spend the winter here, including Canada and snow geese, black duck and scaup. Herons and tree frogs, alligators and snakes, bear and white-tailed deer all call the swamps and forests that surround the Sound their homes.
MAN AND THE SOUND
In our enthusiasm for economic growth, we have upset delicate natural balances. Harvests of fish are down by more than 70 percent, and we are threatening precious resources.
Cultural eutrophication, or over-enrichment of waters with nitrogen and phosphorus from man-made sources, can cause excessive and ill-timed algal blooms. Decaying algae create low oxygen levels that may cause fish kills.
Sediment from cleared land clogs the gills of young fish and smothers fish larvae and shellfish. It also clouds water, retarding growth of aquatic plants.
Toxicants, such as heavy metals and dioxins, may affect fish productivity.
Alterations in water flow can prevent successful spawning of fish.
Specific human activities that can affect natural systems:
Changes in land use. Ditching and draining wetlands for farming and forestry has caused loss of habitat and sedimentation of streams.
Dams and stream culverts. These structures may block fish migration and alter natural water flow necessary for successful fish reproduction.
Rainwater runoff. Farms contribute nutrients, sediment and chemicals. City streets and parking lots contribute toxic organics, heavy metals, and oil.
Industrial and Municipal Waste. Discharges often contain nutrients, bacteria, or toxic chemicals.
Overfishing. Recreational fishermen compete with commercial fishermen for a share of an already stressed resource.
Population Growth. Development, much of it along the coast, causes loss of critical habitat and creates greater need for waste disposal.
If we are to bequeath clean water to future generations, we need to understand how our estuary functions and how our activities affect its health. In time, water quality can be improved through thoughtful land use planning, control of rainwater runoff and cleaner waste-water discharge. Widespread use of Best Management Practices in farming and forestry will reduce sediment and nutrients that enter streams.
An informed public with a strong commitment to environmental protection is the key to success in improving water quality. The future of our waters rests in the hands and hearts of its owners the people of North Carolina. It is time for us to become Stewards of the Sound.