State of the Beach/State Reports/NC/Beach Ecology

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North Carolina Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access108
Water Quality67
Beach Erosion10-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures5 8
Beach Ecology5-
Surfing Areas38
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.



North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (DCM) envisions for the North Carolina coast a healthy, diverse, and economically sound coastal environment for the enjoyment and benefit of citizens and visitors, achieved through a model program using partnerships, education, and the best science to shape publicly supported policies and decisions.

Article 7 (Rules Governing Coastal Management) of the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) provides definitions of areas of environmental concern (§ 113A-113) and establishes policies and procedures relating to the protection and preservation of these areas.

Part of the CAMA Rules & Policies is the Dredge and Fill Law, which, among other things, attempts to prohibit any dredge and fill project where "there will be significant adverse effect on wildlife or fresh water, estuarine or marine fisheries." Current state policy requires projects that dredge inlets and re-nourish beaches to be done in the winter, from Dec. 1 through March 31, to minimize the effects on sea turtles and birds. In September 2014 it was announced the state Division of Coastal Management would soon submit for public comment a series of proposals to change the way inlets are managed, including expanding the time “window” for dredging and beach re-nourishment into sea turtle and bird nesting seasons. The idea is part of an overall inlet management study by the division and its policy-making Coastal Resources Commission. Proponents say that widening that window would reduce costs, but a host of state and federal agencies are concerned and watching the process very carefully.

In October 2014 the state Division of Coastal Management issued a request for proposals to provide technical assistance in developing a North Carolina Regional Biological Assessment for sand placement projects on North Carolina beaches. The goal of the project is to achieve a more comprehensive and streamlined permitting process for beach nourishment projects while protecting threatened and endangered species along the coast. “This project will help us address recent federal actions to designate critical habitat area for threatened and endangered species, such as loggerhead sea turtles, and the implications of those actions on the permitting of beach and inlet management projects,” said Braxton Davis, director of the Division of Coastal Management. Read more.

An important resource is the The CAMA handbook for Development in Coastal North Carolina, which describes when a CAMA development permit needs to be used and what other regulations need to be followed. The handbook also explains how following these rules protects the natural resources in the area.

The North Carolina Beach and Inlet Management Plan provides information on threatened beach species and threats to their survival. The plan also calls for more monitoring of the effects of beach nourishment on threatened species and on the near shore soft bottom ecosystems. However, the plan does not specifically call for monitoring sandy beach ecosystems.

NC Sea Grant's The Dune Book provides good information on dunes, dune vegetation, and dune management practices.

Although ocean beaches in North Carolina are considered state property, various state statutes provide municipal authority to regulate activities in the public trust areas of ocean beaches. Such regulations may address public access, beach driving, beach horseback riding, dune protection, leash laws, smoking, litter bans, removal of structures and the protection of environmental habitats.

Following is specific information on beach grooming, bulldozing, and beach driving.

Grooming: Beach grooming is not allowed during sea turtle or shorebird nesting periods. Very few municipalities use beach rakes. Trash and other debris are generally collected by hand. In response to a request by the Town of Carolina Beach to use a beach rake, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission developed some guidelines that would be acceptable. Carolina Beach was granted permission to use the beach rake twice per year outside of turtle nesting season from November to April. The Town's state permit to use the rake twice a year is due to expire in December 2014. Due to increasing numbers of visitors resulting in trash on the beach, particularly in Freeman Park on the North End of the Island, the Town requested in 2013 to use the rake once a week in Freeman Park and in an area of the beach in the downtown district. The Town has met with officials from the State Division of Coastal Management, State Wildlife Resources Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the request. Contact Matt Godfrey, turtles, with NC wildlife Resources Commission (252-728-1528) and Sue Cameron, shorebirds, at 910-325-3602. More on this. Permission to use the beach rake more frequently, with conditions, was granted in June 2013.

Bulldozing (Also referred to as "dune pushing"): Property owners may protect their property by bulldozing sand to create a temporary dune or berm in front of a structure or to shore up a building’s foundation. In many cases, other state and federal authorizations are required, and local permit officers and Coastal Management staff work to guide property owners through the process. Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) rules provide for a statutory exemption allowing beach bulldozing to occur without a permit if the structure is considered imminently threatened. The local permit officer or Coastal Management staff must determine whether a structure is exempt from a CAMA permit. However, a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still is required.

During the sea turtle nesting season (May 1-Nov. 15), a federal moratorium on beach bulldozing exists. However, Coastal Management can coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to determine if any turtle resources exist in an area after any given storm. If no turtle resources are identified, the property owner will be permitted to bulldoze the area during the federal sea turtle moratorium for that year only.

Almost all oceanfront municipalities beach bulldoze at one time or another depending on the frequency and severity of storms. Rules regarding beach bulldozing NCAC 7H .0308(a)(4) can be found on the DCM Website.

Beach Driving: Beach driving in North Carolina is not regulated by the Division of Coastal Management, but is primarily controlled either by local governments (at the town level, or county level in the case of Currituck Co.), by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation (e.g., at the Fort Fisher state park beach), or the National Park Service (e.g., at Cape Hatteras National Seashore). Most towns only permit beach driving between approximately Oct. 1 and April 30, primarily to protect bird and sea turtle nests from vehicular traffic during their nesting season. Some beaches have year-round access, however. Many towns also require off-roaders to pay a fee and place a sticker on their vehicle. Driving on the dunes is not allowed on any NC beaches.

Many of the Outer Banks beaches are open to beach driving at least part of the year. The Outer Banks tourism Website lists beach driving rules at

Cape Hatteras National Seashore generally allows beach driving year-round, but driving is prohibited in some locations and/or at some times of the year to preserve the unique plants and wildlife of this dynamic barrier island ecosystem. See their website or this one for more information on regulations. Also see below for more details on how the beach driving regulations at Cape Hatteras were developed.

Coastal Habitat Protection Plan

The Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) was a joint effort by DENR and an Inter-commission Review Committee (IRC). The IRC was made up of members of the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and the Marine Fisheries Commission. The CHPP was updated in 2010. The four overall goals of the plan are to:

  • Improve the effectiveness of existing rules and programs protecting fish habitats
  • Identify, designate and protect strategic habitat areas
  • Enhance habitat and protect it from physical impacts
  • Enhance and protect water quality

One specific goal of the plan is to "prepare and implement a comprehensive beach and inlet management plan that addresses ecologically based guidelines, socio-economic concerns, and fish habitat."

The state has defined critical habitats that include sandy beaches. These Strategic Habitat Areas (SHAs) have been identified for the northern half of the state, and work is underway to identify these habitats in the southern half. SHAs are described as “specific locations of individual fish habitat orsystems of habitats that have been identified to provide exceptional habitat functions or that are particularly at risk due to imminent threats, vulnerability, or rarity…Designation of SHAs are based on habitat rarity, habitat vulnerability, habitat diversity, level of habitat alterations (e.g.,jetties, stormwater outfalls, dredging, etc.), occurrence of ecological designations (e.g., spawning area, nursery area, etc.), fish abundance, water quality impairment status, regional importance of a functional area, size/islolation/connectivity/shape, and expert opinion.”[1]

Cape Lookout National Seashore Interim Protected Species Management Plan

The National Park Service (NPS) is asking for public input on the development of a Cape Lookout National Seashore (Seashore) Interim Protected Species Management Plan. This plan will be the guiding document for protected species management at the Seashore until the park's Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan is completed in 2013.


The Seashore is beginning the process to develop an Interim Protected Species Management Plan/EA. This plan will guide management practices for protection of species over the next several years until a long term Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) management plan and regulations are developed. The plan will describe practices that will be used to ensure protection of the species while allowing for visitor use. The benefits of the plan and its development process include allowing for a means of public input and comments, meeting the requirements under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and setting forth plans for how the park will allow recreational use while protecting species.

Purpose and Need

The purpose of taking action at this time is to evaluate and implement strategies to protect sensitive species while allowing for appropriate recreational use, as directed in the enabling legislation, NPS management policies, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws and mandates until the long-term ORV Management Plan is developed. An Interim Protected Species Management Plan/EA would meet the following need until the long-term ORV Management Plan is completed:

  • There is a need for a management plan to prevent adverse effects to protected species in compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), NPS management policies, and park enabling legislation.

Issues Identified

The following highlights several of the issues identified early on in the planning process:

  • Federally Listed Threatened and Endangered Species: Recreational activities at the Seashore could impact federally threatened or endangered species and their habitat, on the beach and soundside of the Seashore. Conflicts between the listed species and recreational use could create direct or indirect losses to the species.
  • Visitor Use and Experience: Management of protected species could result in adverse and beneficial changes to visitor use and experience.
  • Other Sensitive Species: Habitat for the American oystercatcher and colonial waterbirds may be vulnerable to recreational uses.
  • Local and Regional Economics: Management of protected species could affect local and regional economics.
  • Park Operations and Management: Accommodating recreational uses while protecting sensitive species requires sufficient park personnel and adequate funding. Park operations (staffing and funding) may be affected by protected species management strategies.

The draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was released on March 10, 2006. Since that time, several addition documents have been prepared to aid in the overall Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

In October 2007 Defenders of Wildlife and The National Audubon Society filed a lawsuit charging the NPS with failing to manage beach driving in ways that protect shorebirds and sea turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The environmental groups asked the US District Court to set aside the park's Interim Protected Species Management Plan. The lawsuit contends that beach driving allowed under the interim plan harms endangered or threatened or rare birds, sea turtles, and plants. The plaintiffs contend that gull-billed terns, common terns, and black skimmers have all but disappeared, and that populations of least terns, American oystercatchers, and piping plovers have also declined.

In December 2007 NPS announced it was preparing a workbook describing a variety of off-road vehichle (ORV) management elements and options to facilitate public comment on preliminary alternatives for the Seashore's ORV Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. The workbook and other documents have been posted on the NPS PEPC website.

In November 2008 NPS Superintendent Mike Murray announced that information about off-road vehicle (ORV) management alternatives being considered by the National Park Service (NPS) for Cape Hatteras National Seashore had been provided to the Seashore’s ORV management negotiated rulemaking advisory committee. The information is also available to the public and has been uploaded to the PEPC website, under ORV Management Plan project, entitled 2008 11Nov 05 – ORV EIS Alternatives.

In March 2010 the NPS released a Draft ORV Management Plan/EIS (DEIS) that "evaluates the impacts of several alternatives for regulations and procedures that would carefully manage ORV use/access in the Seashore to protect and preserve natural and cultural resources and natural processes, to provide a variety of visitor use experiences while minimizing conflicts among various users, and to promote the safety of all visitors."

NPS released their Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan in November 2010. On December 20, 2010 NPS announced the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Final EIS for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan had been approved. The ROD documents the decision by the NPS to implement Alternative F, the NPS Preferred Alternative.

In early February 2012 the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance (CHAPA) filed a lawsuit against the federal government agencies in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in an effort to stop the Park Service from implementing its off-road vehicle management plan and ORV final rule, which became effective on February 15. Here is an Update on ORV Management Plan for Cape Hatteras National Seashore from the National Park Service.

In February 2013 U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina reintroduced a bill in the House of Representatives that seeks to overturn both the National Park Service’s final rule for off-road vehicles on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and a court-approved consent decree that settled a lawsuit filed against the Park Service by environmental groups. The "Preserving Access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act" would return management of seashore resources to the Interim Protected Species Management Strategy and Environmental Assessment, issued by the Park Service on June 13, 2007. The bill was scheduled for a hearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation in March 2013. H.R. 819 is identical to H.R. 4094, which Congressman Jones introduced in 2012. That bill passed the House of Representatives, but the Senate version failed to make it out of committee. In June 2013 it was announced that an amended version of SB 486 (originally introduced by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., along with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C) had been passed unanimously by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. More on this compromise legislation.

In December 2014 the U.S. Senate passed the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 89 to 11. Attached to the bill and also passed is a public lands package of bills, one of which includes some significant changes to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's Off-Road Vehicle Plan. The House of Representatives previously easily passed the bill. The Cape Hatteras legislation instructs the Secretary of Interior to review and adjust wildlife protection buffers, keep them in place the shortest possible duration to protect a species, designate vehicle and pedestrian corridors around resource closures, and confer with the state of North Carolina on certain buffers and protections. It also makes other modifications to the final ORV plan, such as conducting a public process to consider such changes as the earlier opening of beaches that are closed at night during the summer, extending seasonal ORV routes in the fall and spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas. The Secretary of the Interior must report to the Congress within a year on the measures taken to implement the legislation. Following is the text of the legislation:


(a) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:
(1) FINAL RULE.—The term ‘‘Final Rule’’means the final rule entitled ‘‘Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, Cape Hatteras National Seashore—Off-Road Vehicle Management’’(77 Fed. Reg. 3123 (January 23, 2012)).
(2) NATIONAL SEASHORE.—The term ‘‘National Seashore’’ means the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area.
(3) SECRETARY.—The term ‘‘Secretary’’ means the Secretary of the Interior.
(4) STATE.—The term ‘‘State’’ means the State of North Carolina.

(1) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall review and modify wildlife buffers in the National Seashore in accordance with this subsection and any other applicable law.
(2) BUFFER MODIFICATIONS.—In modifying wildlife buffers under paragraph (1), the Secretary shall, using adaptive management practices—
(A) ensure that the buffers are of the shortest duration and cover the smallest area necessary to protect a species, as determined in accordance with peer-reviewed scientific data; and
(B) designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors around areas of the National Seashore closed because of wildlife buffers, to allow access to areas that are open.
(3) COORDINATION WITH STATE.—The Secretary, after coordinating with the State, shall determine appropriate buffer protections for species that are not listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), but that are identified for protection under State law.

(c) MODIFICATIONS TO FINAL RULE.—The Secretary shall undertake a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements at the National Seashore, the following changes to the Final Rule:
(1) Opening beaches at the National Seashore that are closed to night driving restrictions, by opening beach segments each morning on a rolling basis as daily management reviews are completed.
(2) Extending seasonal off-road vehicle routes for additional periods in the Fall and Spring if offroad vehicle use would not create resource management problems at the National Seashore.
(3) Modifying the size and location of vehicle free areas.

(d) CONSTRUCTION OF NEW VEHICLE ACCESS POINTS.—The Secretary shall construct new vehicle access points and roads at the National Seashore—
(1) as expeditiously as practicable; and
(2) in accordance with applicable management plans for the National Seashore.

(e) REPORT.—The Secretary shall report to Congress within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act on measures taken to implement this section."

The National Park Service introduced a new volunteer “beach watch” program for the 2009 summer season. Park officials say the program’s goal is to prevent incidents of vandalism, crime, and damage to park resources and property and to ensure the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a safe place for the visiting public. The program is intended to assist the Park Service in monitoring inappropriate or illegal activities at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and extend the educational components of good stewardship practices of the park’s natural resources. Volunteers are needed and will be trained to assist the NPS in assuring compliance with beach resource closures, monitoring areas of concern experiencing crowded conditions, and helping ensure a safe visit for park visitors.

The idea for the program began when community leaders, concerned park user groups, and park staff began discussing ways to prevent vandalism and unauthorized entry into resource closures, which leads to closures expansions. The park is interested in recruiting a group of volunteers from the surrounding communities who spend time on the beach. The program will also ask the visiting public to report inappropriate activities. To learn more about this new program and volunteer time to help protect the resources, call Ocracoke Park Ranger Bill Caswell at 252-928-5111, ext. 26.

Other Federal Programs

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated portions of island and mainland coastal beaches in six states along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic (NWA) population of loggerhead sea turtles. In total, 90 nesting sites in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were identified for designation as critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles. These sites incorporate about 740 shoreline miles: about 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline, and consist of nesting sites with or immediately adjacent to locations with the highest nesting densities (approximately 84 percent of the documented nesting) within these six states.

In July 2014 NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the proposed rule was final, designating critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico. Details and maps. The Outer Banks is not included in a the new rule.


While there is no comprehensive program to collect beach ecology data specifically, there are various sources of info available. The NC Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) provides information on the Division of Water Quality's eight coastal river basins: coastal ocean, Chowan River, Southern estuaries, Tar-Pamlico River, Roanoke River, New/White Oak rivers, Albemarle Sound, Core/Bogue sounds, Neuse River, Pamlico Sound and Cape Fear River. Each component includes habitat mapping, status and trends, threats, and a cumulative impact analysis. The plan also recommends research needs and management actions that state regulatory agencies need to take to protect and restore habitat.

A collection of reports, databases, and data layers prepared by consultants for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative offers a birds-eye view of sandy beach and tidal inlet habitats within the U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range of the endangered piping plover based on imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations. By comparing the location, status, and condition of potential plover breeding grounds from Maine to North Carolina during three distinct time periods -- before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after the storm, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts -- these inventories provide a habitat baseline that can help resource managers plan for future change.

Coastal Resources Commission Chairman Gene Tomlinson signed the state’s Coastal Habitat Protection Plan at a ceremony on February 11, 2005. At their June 2005 meeting, the CRC approved the Coastal Resources Commission/Division of Coastal Management Coastal Habitat Protection Plan implementation plan.

Word came down from the state legislature in August 2005 that most of the requests by the NC Division of Coastal Management for $210,000 in funding for fiscal year 2005-06 and $275,000 for FY 2006-07 for CHPP initiatives were not included in the final budget. The requested funds were for projects including an inventory of docks and piers, development of a beach and inlet management plan, mapping submerged aquatic vegetation and mapping shell bottom.

Several biodiversity inventories have been completed for specific sandy beach areas. These include:

Additional information may be available from the NC Natural Heritage Program (Scott Pohlman 919-715-8696).

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CAHA) Resource Management Annual Reports for Threatened and Endangered Species are available to the public. The following reports are posted on the CAHA Website for the years 2006 through 2010: Seabeach Amaranth Report, Piping Plover Report, Sea Turtle Report, Colonial Waterbird Summary, and American Oystercatcher Summary. These reports can be found on the CAHA Website.

The draft report One North Carolina Naturally (April 2003) identified three program areas, one of which is: Working on the Water - Protecting and Restoring Sounds and Ocean Habitats

"Much of North Carolina’s past and future is tied to the coastal region—a natural asset with 320 miles of oceanfront and 4,000 miles of estuarine coastline. The continued vigor of our commercial and recreational fishing industry, tourism, education and other coastal activities depends on lively ecological systems, cultural resources and scenic attributes. We must identify and conserve areas critical for their unique biological and landscape values. Strategies are needed to protect and enhance their contribution to the state’s economy and high quality of life."

Sea Turtles

Baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle

About 775 nests are dug by female sea turtles on North Carolina each season. The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle nesting along North Carolina's coast. The green turtle, the leatherback and Kemp's ridley are among other that have nested there. In a surprising development, the first sea turtle nest of the 2005 nesting season on Bogue Banks was a rare leatherback turtle (the largest sea turtles in the world), perhaps the first such nest by the endangered species on the Bogue Banks.

Although the number of sea turtles seems to be declining, the popularity is growing for guided, late-night turtle walks, where beachgoers can watch a 300-pound turtle dig a hole, drop 100 eggs and drag herself back to the ocean. One organization offering turtle walks in North Carolina is the Bald Head Island Conservancy in Bald Head.

In an encouraging sign, State Wildlife officials said 2012 was a good year for sea turtle nesting on North Carolina’s coast. From late April until mid-September, sea turtles laid 1,103 nests along North Carolina’s coast — up from 967 in the previous year and 883 in 2010. This nesting season’s numbers were the second highest since biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission began statewide tracking of nests in the mid-90s, according to Sea Turtle Biologist Matthew Godfrey. This trend continued in 2013, when loggerheads laid 1,304 nests along the North Carolina coast. Green turtles, Kemp’s Ridley and unknown species accounted for another 49 nests, mostly on the Outer Banks. “It was the largest year in North Carolina for loggerheads since they’ve been keeping records (in the mid-1990s),” said Everett Smith, Caswell Beach Turtle Watch coordinator. In 2015, across the North Carolina coast, 1,179 nests had been recorded as of early August.

The Website for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides information on sea turtles, piping plovers and other sensitive species that rely on the sandy beach. Information on beach closures related to species reproduction can be found on this site. Check the home page and the "news" link.

The Carteret County Shore Protection Office website contains links to annual Sea Turtle Monitoring Reports and information from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as well as information on biological monitoring programs designed to evaluate the effects of beach restoration projects, specifically to: "document the species that inhabit and/or use the borrow areas and project beaches, and determine how long it will take for biological populations to return to baseline conditions."

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has a nice Sea Turtle factsheet, as well as additional information on sea turtles and beach/dune habitat.

An article appearing in the Winston-Salem Journal in July 2005 stated that gill-net fishermen in Pamlico Sound could kill up to 100 threatened and endangered sea turtles every year through 2010 under a federal permit sought by the state. The permit also would allow up to 320 additional turtles to be caught and released during each September-to-December flounder-fishing season. The proposal outraged environmentalists and was criticized by some federal and state officials. They say that the Army Corps of Engineers isn't allowed to harm a third of that number of turtles for its dredging operations across the whole Southeast. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries says it believes that the proposed management plan balances the needs of the turtles with the livelihoods of the region's fishermen.

North Carolina's ocean and coastal waters are home to five species of sea turtles, all protected under federal and state law. Three of the species - Kemps ridley, leatherback and hawks-bill - are listed as endangered. Loggerhead and green sea turtles, the most common types found in Pamlico Sound, are listed as threatened.

Pamlico Sound also has become a favorite fishing ground of flounder fishermen, even though an increase in the number of stranded sea turtles led to the closing of deepwater areas to gill nets in 1999. Many of the turtles in the sound are juvenile turtles, and Matthew Godfrey, a sea-turtle biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said he is worried about their possible removal from the population. Officials also noted the seemingly high number of allowable sea-turtle deaths compared to those approved for other agencies that have received permits to work along the coast. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is allowed to take a maximum of five turtles a year as part of the Wilmington Harbor deepening project.

Other Species

An interesting effect of Hurricane Ophelia in September 2005 was the deposition of a substantial amount of sargassum weed (a floating plant that only grows in the Sargasso Sea) onto the beaches in Dare County. In Kitty Hawk, deposits of the sargassum weed were nearly knee-deep. These deposits may have protected the beach from erosion damage from the storm. The weed is also considered essential fish habitat by federal fisheries managers and ocean areas containing the weed have been described as "a floating marine park."

North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) has worked with citizens to safeguard the state’s coastal rivers, creeks, sounds and beaches. The NCCF Habitat Restoration and Education Program seeks to restore some of North Carolina's most threatened environments while simultaneously increasing the public's appreciation for the value and beauty of a variety of coastal habitats.

The creation of the new Mason Inlet created a sanctuary for birds on the north end, which is privately owned and not in Wrightsville Beach’s corporate limits, but in the unincorporated area of New Hanover County. More than 500 least turns nested at the north end bird sanctuary in 2005, making it the largest natural nesting site for that bird in the state.

Efforts to conserve the area known as "The Point" on the southern tip of Topsail Beach took a positive turn in mid-2006 when The Senate Appropriations Committee for Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies approved the 2007 fiscal year budget for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program which includes $2.9 million. The money will be used by the North Carolina state parks system to acquire land on the southern tip of Topsail Beach. The town has been working with the NC Coastal Land Trust in an effort to conserve The Point which is home to rare and endangered species including the piping plover, and loggerhead turtles. The area is regarded as on of the largest stretches of undeveloped barrier island in the state still under private ownership. The NC Coastal Land Trust and the NC Division of Parks and Recreation are seeking additional funds which include matching funds for federal and state grants as well as a substantial contribution form the landowners and local private fundraising. A $4.6 million application has been submitted to the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Once the land is acquired it will be managed by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation as part of the Lea Island State Natural Area.

Seabeach amaranth is a small plant that is important in supporting the sand dunes on the beaches of the Eastern Seaboard. Protecting this plant is one of the resource management projects maintained by Hammocks Beach State Park. The annual plant is important to the park for two reasons - the plant is important as an erosion-control element that helps keep dunes in place and it is listed on the endangered species list. The plant can grow closer to the ocean than any other plant and it can also tolerate some overwash and salt spray. The plant grows on the face of the primary dune line from the base of the dune to the wrack line. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency has placed it on their endangered list and the state has it listed it as a threatened species. Park rangers conduct yearly inventories of the plant and send the information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. In 2005, there were 600 plants counted. In 2006, thanks to Ophelia, there were only two. When the plant was first catalogued in the early 1800s, it was found in 10 states from Massachusetts to South Carolina. In 1993, the plant was put on the federal endangered species list. For a while, the plant could be found only in North and South Carolina. Now there are six states the plant can call home. The reason for the decline is loss of habitat and destructive human activity that can alter the dune system. As developers continue to build on the oceanfront, the dunes are compromised. The homeowners want the sand dunes in place to protect their property but the seabeach amaranth that is destroyed during the building phase causes the dunes to deteriorate. The seeds that this plant produces are distributed by wind and water. The salt-tolerant seeds and plants can float so they can be washed out to sea and then wash ashore and take root or germinate in another location. The sea beach amaranth project is one of six that Hammocks Beach State Park personnel participate in as part of the park's resource management program. In addition to the sea beach amaranth, the program includes painted buntings, sea turtles, colonial nesting birds, monarch watch and invasive exotic species. Tideland News periodically features the various projects.

Invasive Species

Officials in North and South Carolina are engaged in what will likely be a years-long battle to eradicate beach vitex from the coasts of both states. Clemson University has begun tests on four sites on Pawleys Island to determine the best method of getting rid of the non-native, invasive plant, and Bald Head Island, N.C., is conducting an eradication program.

The deciduous, ground-cover plant is native to Korea and was first introduced to area beaches as a way to repair dunes after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It produces attractive purple flowers along with pleasant-smelling, gray green foliage during warm months and has been sold in commercial nurseries as a landscaping plant. It can grow from any part of runners that may be up to 60 feet long or from an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 seeds produced per square meter. But it has been found to inhibit the nesting of sea turtles, crowd out native dune plants and be less effective at holding and building dunes than things such as sea oats and bitter pannicum.

The plant has been banned by governments in Pawleys Island and Georgetown County in South Carolina and in Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Caswell Beach and Bald Head Island in North Carolina. The town of Oak Island, one of two places it is known to exist in Brunswick County, has not banned it. It has also been spotted along beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. It is known to exist along much of the S.C. coast and as far north as Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. N.C. officials are concerned it could take hold on uninhabited barrier islands that are important wild bird nesting sites.

Rules to ban the sale, transport and possession of beach vitex by nurseries, garden shops and private property owners passed their final regulatory hurdle in January 2009. The plant will be officially added to the state’s “noxious weed” list on February 1, 2009.

Bald Head appropriated $30,000 for plant removal, which started in January 2006. The village received a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue the program through summer 2006. Clemson officials have applied for a $133,000 grant from the federal Fish and Wildlife Foundation to battle the plant in South Carolina. Officials in both states are hoping that beach vitex will be declared a federal noxious plant, which would ban its sale throughout the United States.

More information on beach vitex can be found on the Website of the Carolinas Beach Vitex Task Force.

The Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR) conducts research on the effects of coastal habitat change and restoration on living marine resources such as fish, marine mammals, and protected species. CCFHR has laboratories in Beaufort, NC and Seldovia, AK. Research focuses on injured habitats and communities and on estimating mortality, growth, and reproduction of living marine resources. These missions support NOAA’s broader mission of sustaining healthy coasts.

In a project described on NOAA's Digital Coast website, an Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) effort was initiated to combine and coordinate NOAA's coastal and ocean mapping activities and disseminate data. The NOAA IOCM pilot project covered an area approximately 1500 km2 extending from Cape Hatteras to Virginia Beach and encompassed the Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) site. NOAA's National Geodetic Survey acquired high-resolution digital aerial imagery and topographic lidar data for the project area. Land cover data were provided by the NOAA Coastal Services Center. These data are being used for nautical charting applications and to help the Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve monitor changes in bathymetry, seasonal conditions of hydrology, subtidal habitats, and broad scale changes in land cover. The Coastal Services Center and the NOAA Estuarine Reserve Division are assisting the Currituck Banks Reserve with an invasive species application; delineating Phragmites australis stands from the imagery and elevation data.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve

The North Carolina Coastal Reserve (NCCR) & National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NCNERR) is a network of ten protected sites established for long-term research, education and stewardship. This program protects more than 41,000 acres of estuarine land and water, which provides essential habitat for wildlife; offers educational opportunities for students, teachers and the public; and serves as living laboratories for scientists. Four of the Reserve components are designated as NCNERR sites: Currituck Banks, Rachel Carson, Masonboro Island, and Zeke’s Island. The state supported sites in the NCCR are Kitty Hawk Woods, Emily and Richardson Preyer Buckridge, Buxton Woods, Permuda Island, Bald Head Woods, and Bird Island.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Michele Walker
Public Information Officer
North Carolina DEHNR

Rebecca Ellin, Manager
Beaufort Coastal Reserve Office / 252.838.0880

Patricia Smith
NCDENR Division of Marine Fisheries
Phone: 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

Christine Jensen
Marine Fisheries Biologist
NC Division of Marine Fisheries

Wouter Ketel
Education and Public Programs
Cape Lookout National Seashore
(252)728-2250 ext. 3005


  1. Coastal Zone Manager Response to Surfrider Foundation Beach Ecology Survey, 2011

State of the Beach Report: North Carolina
North Carolina Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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