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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.


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.


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.