The 6th-order Cape Fear River is North Carolina’s largest river basin that is completely contained within the state’s borders, with its headwaters stretching from northwest of Greensboro to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean at Bald Head Island. The basin covers an area of over 9,000 square miles, larger than the state of New Jersey, and there are over 6,000 miles of tributaries including four major ones: the Deep River, Haw River, Black River, and Northeast Cape Fear River (see Appendix III, Figure 1). Over one third of North Carolina’s population lives within the basin. The Cape Fear is also the state’s most ecologically diverse river basin, with some of the highest biodiversity on the eastern seaboard of the United States (Hall et al. 1999; Stein et al. 2000).

The Cape Fear basin is the only major river basin in North Carolina to empty directly into the Atlantic Ocean. This direct connection to the Atlantic was important for early settlers who used the Cape Fear as a way to move the natural resources found in the basin down-river, where they were loaded onto oceangoing vessels for shipment overseas. These goods included naval stores derived from the longleaf pine forests that blanketed the basin, rice from the plantations of the lower Cape Fear and timber. The port of Wilmington was a major blockade-running port during the Civil War, and later, steamboats plied the waterways of the Cape Fear connecting the many towns along its banks. As trade on the river increased so did efforts to make navigating the river easier. Over time, the river was dredged and channelized and locks and dams were constructed to facilitate navigation.

Status of Migratory Fish Stocks

The Cape Fear River once supported thriving stocks of migratory fish including American shad,  sturgeon and striped bass (Earll 1887; Chestnut and Davis 1975). Migratory fish populations within the Cape Fear River have declined substantially over the past two centuries (Smith and Hightower 2012).  At the beginning of the 20th century, the Cape Fear River was one of the most productive rivers in North Carolina for American shad, but current commercial landings are 87% lower than historic estimates (Smith and Hightower 2012). In the late 1800s river herring was the most economically important finfish harvested in North Carolina, and sturgeon was the most important fishery in the Cape Fear River (McDonald 1887). Yarrow (1874) reported that sturgeons were so numerous in the Cape Fear River “as almost to preclude the possibility of drift-fishing in the month of April.” But by 1907, sturgeon had declined, in part due to blockages to historic spawning habitat as well as overfishing. This decline prompted concern about their future and that of other important migratory species in the river: “the history of the sturgeon is an unmistakable indication of what will eventually happen to the shad, alewives, striped bass, and other species unless ample provision is made for the survival of a sufficient percentage of the annual run until spawning has ensued” (Smith 1907).

Today, overfishing, declining water quality and habitat, and blockage of upstream spawning migrations have continued to limit these once thriving populations of migratory fish (Deaton et al. 2010; NCWRC 2005; Winslow et al. 1983). Populations have decreased greatly in North Carolina (Ashley and Rachels 2011; NCDMF 2007; NCDMF and NCWRC 2004; NCDMF and NCWRC 2012; Smith and Hightower 2012) and along the entire East Coast (ASMFC 2009; ASMFC 2010). Specific population estimates are not available for all migratory fish stocks for the Cape Fear River, but available data verify the  depressed nature of these stocks. State and federal agencies have limited or banned the directed harvest of many of these species in the Cape Fear River to protect the diminished populations.


Explore what the Cape Fear River Partnership is doing to increase fish populations, increase recreational fishing success, and more.