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A Rapid Cure for Cape Fear: River Could Be Haven for Spawning Fish If New ‘Ladders’ Added

June 19, 2008

By Mike Zlotnicki, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jun. 19–CAPE FEAR RIVER — Imagine 115 miles of pristine southern river, teeming with fish and other wildlife. Modern boat ramps and recreation facilities dot the banks. Anglers from all over the country arrive each spring, hoping to catch anadromous fish — those that live in saltwater and spawn in freshwater. That river could be the Cape Fear River, with a little funding and a lot of rock.

The Cape Fear is the longest river wholly contained in North Carolina. Three dams impede the progress of fish up the river. Adjacent locks move boat traffic around the dams, but the fish remain trapped, mostly unable to continue upstream. Removing the dams would present a particular set of problems.

Rock arch rapids could be the answer, and a series of events including recent proposed legislation could restore fish to the Cape Fear.

Rock arch rapids (also called rock arch weirs) are something of an aquatic stepladder, allowing fish to swim the “face” of the dam because the face is a long gradual slope of stone. Once the fish get to the top, they simply swim over the dam to favored spawning grounds.

In March, a group of men with different backgrounds and similar goals surveyed the situation. Tim Barefoot and Doug Springer of Wilmington and Mike Ward of Raleigh met on a blustery morning and launched Barefoot’s skiff in downtown Wilmington.

Barefoot, a sport fishing advocate, is affiliated with the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national advocacy group. Springer is the Cape Fear River Keeper and also runs eco-tours. Ward is a sport angler and sometimes angling lobbyist. They picked up U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Wicker at Lock and Dam No. 1 — about 39 miles upstream of Wilmington.

“It’s been pretty well determined that [Lock and Dam Nos. 1 and 3] are needed,” Wicker said, referring to the lock and dam numbers, as Barefoot eased his boat into the lock for passage upriver. “[No. 1] for Wilmington and [No. 3] for Fayetteville.”

One problem in removing the dams is that the municipalities get their drinking water from behind the dams.

The locks and dams were first constructed in 1916 and used heavily for commercial boat traffic. Trains and trucks gradually diminished that. Now, the locks serve mostly recreational boaters and few of those.

“I may have none today, five or six tomorrow or none for a week,” said Robin Hall, an Army Corps of Engineers employee who works the lock. It took about seven minutes for the lock to fill and then giant gates opened. In the spring, Hall “locks” through shad and striped bass, but very few make it past No. 3.

“If the striper fishing comes back, it could be as good as the Roanoke,” said Wicker, referring to the Roanoke River, which has seen a resurgence of striped bass that draws anglers from all over the country. “Above each lock and dam you have about 20 miles of river not being utilized. The most important stretch of river [for spawning fish] is above Lock and Dam No. 3. It has better dissolved oxygen content plus rock gravel bottoms.”

Wicker said it would be cheaper to remove the dams, but water supply and quality concerns and other factors rule that out. The cost of a rock arch rapid at Lock and Dam No. 1 would be about $7 million.

Wicker provided documents that stated the river should support a population of 2 million striped bass (there are currently about 10,000), 5,000 Atlantic sturgeon and 25,000 short-nosed sturgeon (about 100 currently). In addition, 3 million pounds of American shad is possible instead of the current estimate of 200,000 pounds, and 12 million pounds of river herring instead of the 1,000 pounds currently served.

A boon in Cape Fear River populations also would benefit the saltwater species of the southern coast, as many of the fry and smaller species would be prey items for red drum, speckled trout, tarpon and other species.

As the crew headed upriver, a flock of wild turkeys foraged a rock throw away. Noisy kingfishers kept pace with the boat, and around one bend soldiers from Fort Bragg held maneuvers in armed boats. The group thanked the soldiers for their service as they motored past. The day ended at Lock and Dam No. 3, where the group met with Rep. Margaret Dickson, a Cumberland County Democrat, and Roger Sheats of the Cape Fear River Assembly. They discussed river issues before departing.

Dickson has introduced House Bill 1813 to allow the state to acquire all three locks and dams.

From her office in Fayetteville, Dickson explained her interest in the river and the bill.

“There are two main points to the bill,” she said. “The first is that the water level remain stable and dependable for thousands of people who depend on the river; and an economic development opportunity to develop a recreational fishery on the river like there is on the Roanoke River. We want the Feds to bring them [the locks] up to speed and turn them over to us. Our economy is not the same as it was in the 20th century. Developing many economies is something we need to do, and recreational fishing is one of them in a lower wealth part of the state.”

And there’s hope for the fish.

Wicker said the corps is already on the hook to provide fish passage at Lock and Dam No. 1 because of previously agreed upon mitigation relative to the Wilmington Harbor Deepening Project. He also said that the North Carolina State Ports Authority would like to build a turning basin for large ships upstream of Wilmington on the Northeast Cape Fear River. The mitigation of the project, which would be in a primary nursery area, would pay for upgrading all of one of the remaining dams and a portion of the other.

“We would be willing to contribute monies toward that effort,” he said.

The hold-up?

“It’s a bureaucratic process,” Wicker said. “The obvious is not easy to grasp sometimes. It’s such an opportunity to have something nice with very little effort.”

After the trip, Springer recalled his vision for the river.

“If we get the ladders in place, and North Carolina picks up the locks and dams, the river could be considered a state or national park,” he said. “Overnight, we could create a 100-mile park. It could be our Yosemite with gateways on both ends.”

But first, the fish need some ladders.

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