Carolina madtoms decline
Fish species reflect the relative health of Tar, Neuse rivers
By DAN PARSONS
At one time, the Carolina madtom was common in the Neuse and Tar rivers. That’s changed.
Populations of the fish have declined substantially from historic levels in the Neuse, but they have, so far, remained near normal levels in the Tar, according to a study by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
The relative success of the fish in the Tar River can be used as a measure of the relative success of conservation efforts aimed at protecting the river’s water quality and the effects on fish habitats from urban development, according to the study.
The small, black-and-yellow-striped fish, found only in those two river basins, has fallen victim to water and habitat degradation because of urban sprawl — a malady affecting a wide range of aquatic animals in the Tarheel state, according to a statement from the commission.
Surveys of madtom populations in the two rivers taken in the 1960s revealed healthy numbers, but by the 1980s researchers began to notice a steady decline in the fish’s overall range. In spring 2007, NCWRC biologists surveyed 60 sites to determine the status of the fish in the Neuse and Tar River basins.
In the Neuse River basin, the madtom was discovered at only 10 percent of the sites where the fish had historically occurred. Only two populations were found during the 2007 surveys in the entire Neuse River basin.
During that some period, the biologist learned that Tar River madtoms fared much better. There, 90 percent of the sites sampled that historically held the fish still maintained healthy populations, according to the NCWRC.
The Tar has an advantage over its neighbors like the Neuse — the entirety of which is considered impaired — because its upper reaches are not developed to the extent that the Neuse’s upper reaches are, David Emmerling, executive director of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, said in a State of the River address delivered in March. But development in Beaufort County and upstream may soon take its toll, especially since runoff from construction sites is the largest source of harmful sedimentation, he said. For the first time ever, two of the Pamlico’s tributaries — Bath Creek and Blounts Bay — were listed as impaired.
The Tar River basin is dominated less by urban development than by rural communities, farmlands and forests. Sixteen counties are located in the Tar River basin. About 420,000 people share the Tar-Pamlico River watershed with 500,000 hogs. Still, the upper reaches of the Tar River, which becomes the Pamlico River at Washington, are by no means as developed to the extent that the Neuse’s headwaters are. But, according to Wood, even rivers like the Neuse are not lost to the pollution poured into them.
The N.C. Division of Water Quality has proposed changes to the stormwater-runoff regulations that would tighten restrictions on coastal development. The rule changes are aimed at preserving the water quality in North Carolina’s estuaries faced with pollution from booming coastal and inland development.
Despite the fact that Tar River basin populations remain relatively healthy, the Carolina madtom is now listed as “state threatened” and as a “federal species of concern.”
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