There are 17 designated river basins in North Carolina. A river basin can be defined as all of the land surface dissected and drained by many streams and creeks that flow downhill into one another, and eventually into one river. Just as a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides, a river basin sends all the water falling on the surrounding land into a central river and ultimately out to the sea. In North Carolina, the five western basins drain to the Gulf of Mexico (Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, French Broad, Watauga and New). The other 12 basins flow to the Atlantic Ocean. Only four basins are contained entirely within the state (Cape Fear, Neuse, White Oak and Tar-Pamlico).
North Carolina freshwaters support an impressive array of aquatic species with at least 240 fish, 125 mollusk and 45 crayfish. Unfortunately, nearly 12 percent of our fish and 59 percent of our mussel species are currently imperiled. Threats to aquatic biodiversity include point and nonpoint source pollution, hydrologic alteration, physical habitat manipulation and biological pollution. Recently, water quality has improved in many waters that were historically polluted. However, habitat degradation continues to threaten aquatic communities. Increased development and urbanization, poorly managed crop and animal agriculture, and mining impact aquatic systems with point and nonpoint source inputs. Dams and impoundments on rivers and tributaries alter the hydrologic regime of waterways and result in habitat fragmentation, blockage of fish migration routes and physical habitat alterations.
Historically, aquatic conservation and management strategies have typically focused on commercially or recreationally significant game fish species. The passage of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act stressed ecosystem protection and focused attention on all species and their habitats. Ecosystem management is likely the most effective strategy for conserving rare aquatic species because it factors in ecological relationships, land-use patterns, and threats to habitat and water quality. It is a complicated and often costly approach and relies heavily on cooperation among federal and state agencies, local governments, private organizations and individual citizens. However, its holistic approach can benefit all species within the watershed.
The Wildlife Action Plan provides the Wildlife Resources Commission and other conservation agencies and partners with a comprehensive assessment of the aquatic resources of the state and identifies the major threats to our river basins and the species they support. Most importantly, it outlines the conservation actions needed to ensure the long term existence of North Carolina’s rich aquatic heritage.