Cape Fear tourney raises striper issues
By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on January 2, 2009 1:46 PM
The Cape Fear River's striper population is precarious. While biologists have stocked hundreds of thousands of stripers into the river, there is no evidence the introduced fish are spawning successfully.
Although striped bass anglers have been happy with their catches, most of their fish were raised in a hatchery. Samplings of fish by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission have found only juvenile stocked fish, marked with oxytetracycline, which is an antibiotic.
Lack of spawning success has been blamed on many factors, including foreign stocked fish from the Roanoke-Albemarle population, whereas the Cape Fear River had its own genetically unique striper strain. A similar situation may be occurring in other coastal rivers, including the Neuse River. Removal of a major dam at Quaker Neck on the Neuse a decade ago was thought to be the answer for that river.
But it has not proven to be true -- yet.
The Cape Fear River has many dams, beginning with three locks and dams operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps wanted to divest itself of the dams, which no longer conform to the corps' mission because they are no longer used for commercial navigation.
In the 2008 session, the N.C. legislature passed a law to accept the locks and dams, if the corps does certain things including the installation of a low-gradient rock ramp at each dam to allow striped bass and other anadromous fish to pass upstream.
Already, biologists have curtailing stocking white bass-striped bass hybrids into Jordan Lake. Fish from the upstream lake were passing into the lower Cape Fear River, diluting striped bass spawning effort. In 2008, NCWRC and NCDMF implemented a moratorium to shore up the spawning population. Based on a tournament held in Dec. 6, 2008 the moratorium is already working.
"This is one of the best days I've ever see," said Capt. Jeremiah Hieronymus. "Seven boats caught 77 striped bass and tagged 44 of them."
Hieronymus and six other guides were fishing in the inaugural Cape Fear River Watch Inc. Invitational Striper Tournament. The purpose of the tournament was to draw more people into bonding with the river, according to the tournament organizer, Doug Springer, who is also the Cape Fear Riverkeeper.
"What I want to see is that first native Cape Fear River striper spawned and hatched in the river head all the way downstream to the Atlantic Ocean, then return to swim above all three locks and dams to spawn itself," said Springer. "That could happen one day in the near future, with everything now being put in place to make it happen."
Springer referred to the new law. But he said while the state has agreed to take over the locks, dams, parks and ramps, the Corps will need funding for installing the rock ramps at an estimated cost of $8 million each before the ownership transfer could take place.
"We may be able to get the rock ramps funded with the new administration's emphasis on public works projects," said Springer. "But people will have to contact their U.S. elected officials to get the river project funds appropriated."
To bring attention to this and other issues facing the Cape Fear River and its riparian communities, Springer and Capt. Jot Owens joined forces to host the tournament. A banquet and auction the evening before helped bring several hundred people together for a heightened awareness of the river and its resources. Other captains were Danny Wrenn, Cord Hieronymus, Jamie Rushing, Stu Caulder and Jim Sabella.
"Stripers, sturgeon, shad and herring are like canaries in a coal mine," said Owens. "These anadromous suffer from the dams, which block their access to historic spawning waters. If we can get everyone together to allow those fish to get above the dams to spawn, we could have fishing on the Cape Fear that rivals the fishing on the Roanoke River."
Due to the moratorium, the all-release tournament required a permit from NCDMF. The agency gave a crash course for four captains who agreed to insert tags into the fish. The tags will aid biologists in tracking the movements and population dynamics of Cape Fear striped bass.
"Once the moratorium was put in place, most people stopped fishing for stripers," said Owens. "Everyone fishes the same places and before the moratorium, if someone got to a spot before you did, they had already mined the fish. Now, any striper has to be released. The fishing is absolutely phenomenal and you're fishing in downtown Wilmington, within a mile or two of the city ramp at the end of Castle Street.
"It's a beautiful place and there are plenty of fish. What more could any catch-and-release angler ask?"
For more information, visit www.cfrw.us/.
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