The Pamlico Sound

By Carlton Baker

The Geography

The rare occurrences of flooding and storms aside, the Pamlico Sound provides an important network of shipping lanes, recreational hot spots, and ecosystems for a variety of salt-dependent wildlife. The estuaries and rivers that trickle off the Pamlico Sound run deep into the mainland, providing towns like Bath, Columbia and Washington with gorgeous waterfronts, exceptional boating access, and acres of marshlands or sound side ecosystems for a variety of species to flourish.

The Ecosysytem

As a result of the abundance of these unique eco-systems, a number of preserves and refuges have popped up along the Pamlico Soundfront, including the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge located on the mainland. The sound beaches, saltwater marshes, and patches of maritime forests located off the sound's borders provide an ideal habitat for fish, reptiles, mammals, and hundreds of different migratory and full-time shorebirds.
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Estuaries are places near the coast where freshwater and saltwater mix. Influenced by ocean forces yet partly sheltered from them, estuaries have unique and fascinating ecologies. This article explains what estuaries are, their geology and role in the larger ecosystem, and the ways in which they are currently threatened.
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Estuary Jobs

Estuaries control erosion and reduce flooding of the mainland. Sand bars buffer the impact of waves, while plants and shellfish beds anchor the shore against tides. Swamps and marshes take the initial impact of high winds moving in from the ocean, soak up heavy rain and storm surges, and release the extra water gradually into rivers and groundwater supplies. Although estuaries create unusual and changeable habitats, many plants and animals have adapted to the brackish conditions there. More than 150 species of fish and invertebrates live in North Carolina estuaries. Some species use different habitats within the estuarine system during different stages of their life cycles. As in any ecosystem, the plants and animals in an estuary are richly interconnected, and every species depends on several other species to survive.
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The complex ecosystem of North Carolina estuaries is harmed by changes to the land bordering and surrounding the estuaries and by contamination of river and ocean water. Although the North Carolina estuaries contain 3,000 square miles of surface water, 30,000 square miles of land drains into the Albemarle-Pamlico system. As land is developed for human habitation and use, roads, bridges, culverts, sewage systems, pipelines, and dams change the flow of water through the ecosystem. Whereas wetlands soak up water like a sponge and settle contaminants in the ground, asphalt and concrete deflect water so that it runs off with all its contaminants directly into the rivers, estuaries, and the sea.


The largest North Carolina estuary is Pamlico Sound. Water drains into this system from eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, from the Chowan, Roanoke, Pasquotank, Pamlico, and Neuse Rivers, from marshes, swamps, forests, and grasslands.

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There are nursery areas located in the creeks and embayments of the estuarine system that are important to over 75 species of fish and shellfish. Shellfish beds are important as well to support the fisheries industry. However, there has been a decline in shellfish beds as a result of physical disturbance. Anadromous fish, fish that live in the oceans but migrate up freshwater rivers to spawn, use the estuarine system as a habitat for spawning. These fish include striped bass, shad and herring.