Archived Story

Study is root of Estuarium’s legacy

Published 11:53pm Saturday, January 19, 2013



When the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study began in 1987, it was viewed as curious by many folks that the inland coast of northeastern North Carolina had been selected for an intensive program of research and education.
For decades, even most of us who lived here assumed this place was just a sleepy backwater and always would be — hardly something worthy of a multi-million dollar study.
But APES reminded us instead that the area held a resource of huge importance: an estuary, and not just any estuary, but the second largest in the United States.
Suddenly, we learned that the rivers and swamps around us aren’t just a watery wilderness that makes the last hour of a trip to the beach seem like two, but are actually an essential cradle of sea life, a complex web of habitats with strands so robust they touch places thousands of miles away.
Formed where fresh and salt water mix, estuaries blend the best of each into a hybrid filled with life. The Albemarle-Pamlico in particular serves as spawning ground and nursery for over 90 percent of the seafood species caught by Tarheel fishermen, and probably produces about half of all the fish that swim along America’s Atlantic seaboard
Life pulses from one end of the system to the other, attracting creatures from other realms to its fringes. Ocean-going mackerels and cobia graze on young fish departing the estuarine cradle; otters pluck clams from river bottoms; osprey and herons patrol creeks for unwary prey. Dozens of interconnected components bind the system together, from freshwater cypress swamps upstream to brackish creeks twisting among tangled pocosins to emerald salt marshes dappled across barrier-island bays.
This vibrant fusion of land and water and what it means to northeastern North Carolina became the core of the North Carolina Estuarium.
As APES progressed into the 1990s, local leaders began to envision a center that not only could celebrate the significance of this system, but could serve as a unique tourism draw as well — indeed, it arguably would be the first true “tourist attraction” in Washington’s 200-plus years of existence.
Visions turned into plans, and plans turned into fundraising. Through the mid-1990s, a public-private campaign generated $1 million locally, and with the forming of the Partnership for the Sounds and assistance from the state of North Carolina, the Estuarium was on its way. Construction began in July of 1996 (twice, actually, since Hurricane Bertha literally washed away the first two weeks’ work), and by late 1997 this transformational moment for the Washington waterfront neared completion.
A special “premiere viewing” for local and county residents was held in December 1997, but the doors were not officially opened full time until Jan. 20, 1998.
Since then we have welcomed some 230,641 visitors — including someone from every North Carolina county, every U.S. state, and every populated continent (no Antarcticans yet). Of course, not all of them came to Washington just to see the Estuarium, but we hope the Estuarium gave all of them something special to remember about Washington when they got home.
Over the generations, a mixed bag of fortune has kept the land around the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds from becoming as paved over as the Chesapeake Bay and other major estuaries. Nearly a half-million acres stand in protected natural areas, and much more than that is held in agrarian landscapes of farming or forestry.
But while the natural world still feels vibrant here, change is ever on the horizon, the future threaded with uncertainty.
As we all wrestle with challenges of sustaining the Earth while providing opportunities to develop and grow, those of us at the Estuarium are glad to share some reminders of how amazing nature is right here along the banks of the Pamlico River.
Thanks for all you have done for us. Here’s to another 15 years.

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