The Pamlico's Troubled Waters

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

As much as 70 percent of the commercially important fish caught in North Carolina depend on the Pamlico estuary during some stage of their development. But this vast aquatic nursery — the nation's second largest — is in serious danger. From April 5 to April 9, 1987, Frank Tursi and Paul Haskins of the Winston-Salem Journal examined the problems of the Pamlico River and the lessons to be learned from the slowly revived Chesapeake Bay. Their 15-article series, unusual for an upstate newspaper, brought new attention to a resource in need of vigorous, concerted political relief. 


Bayview — For a week in the summer of 1984, the Pamlico River all but died. 

A layer of water, its oxygen used up, settled along the bottom. It stretched down the entire 39 miles of the river. It fanned out ominously into Pamlico Sound and snaked its way south and up the Neuse River. Nothing could live in it. Fish fled before it. The thousands that couldn't bellied up and floated to the surface. 

Such things — on a smaller scale — have been occurring on the river whenever the weather's right. No one, though, can remember anything as extensive happening before. 

Anoxia is what scientists call it. Commercial fishermen who work the river have a more fitting name: dead water. 

The big dead-water episode of 1984 ended in a week after winds mixed the layers of water in the river, but fishermen and scientists remained disturbed because it wasn't the only sign that things weren't right on the Pamlico. Earlier that year, a fish disease no one had seen before started showing up in menhaden. It wasn't the usual red sore disease. This was nastier, eating through the flesh and leaving gaping holes in its victims. Some fish had half their heads eaten away, others trailed their intestines from holes in their stomachs. Millions died. 

The fish disease has been back every year since, as has the dead water. Though nothing to match the magnitude of two years ago, the anoxic conditions get gradually worse, fishermen say, suffocating blue-claw crabs unfortunate enough to be stuck in traps and killing flounder in fishing nets. 

The disease also seems to be getting worse, sometimes affecting 90 percent of the menhaden in the river to one degree or another. Other species haven't been immune. Sea trout, silver perch, flounder and pinfish have all been susceptible. 

The fish, B J. Copeland said, are trying to tell us something. A biologist who heads the state's Sea Grant program, Copeland has spent his life studying places like the Pamlico. "Fish diseases don't arise because of the hell of it," he said. "They come because there's a change in the environment, most likely a water-quality problem." 

Mysterious fish diseases and dead water would be cause enough for concern, but the signs that there is trouble on the Pamlico are many and unmistakable. The underwater sea grasses, which grew in thick stands up and down the river, disappeared by 1980 and have not grown back. Oyster beds have retreated 10 to 15 miles downriver since the late 1940s, and more than 40,000 acres of shellfish beds were closed to fishing in 1985 because of bacterial contamination. Algal blooms are getting worse, the evidence suggests, and are contributing to the anoxia problems and, as could be expected with this litany of woes, commercial fish catches have declined dramatically in the region since the early 1980s. 

That last may be the most disturbing, since the river is an important fish nursery, or estuary. It is part of the vast Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, 2,500 square miles of water that is the second-largest estuary in the country after the Chesapeake Bay. Fisheries experts estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of the commercially important species of fish caught in the state each year depend on the river and Pamlico Sound during some stage of their development. 

The river is showing signs of stress, Marine Fisheries Division official Terry Sholar says. It is almost as if its life forces are being slowly drained away. 

Years of man's dumping have brought the river to this stage. The Pamlico is really a settling pond for the Tar River, which drains 16 counties in the coastal and piedmont sections of the state. Down the river come the wastes of modern society: herbicides and pesticides, nitrogen and phosphorus, heavy metals and toxins. Eventually, they end up in the Pamlico. 

Add to that mix the waste that enters the river from Texasgulf Chemicals Co., which operates the world's largest open pit phosphate mine and several fertilizer chemical plants on the south bank of the river. 

Maybe most damaging of all, though, is the fresh water that enters the river mainly from the extensive series of ditches and canals that were dug to drain the swampy land so that farmers could grow soybeans and winter wheat. Too much fresh water is really just another form of pollution to a brackish river like the Pamlico, and it's beginning to take its toll. The ditches and canals have changed the area's natural drainage pattern and there now is evidence to suggest that the river's average salinity has dropped because of it. 

It's still a pretty river, one of magnificent sunsets and bountiful wildlife. A ride in a boat down its length reveals huge flocks of snow geese bobbing along in South Creek, osprey nesting atop channel markers, herons stalking the flats in Chocowinity Bay, brown pelicans diving ungainly into the water to feed. 

"We're not in the shape the Chesapeake is in," Copeland said. "We have opportunities here, but the signals are there, and it would be irresponsible of us to wait until those signals become death knells. We have an opportunity here in North Carolina to do something good and right." 


Dallas Ormond, 46, is typical of the fishermen who work the river. He grew up on the Pamlico — born and raised in Bayview, a small fishing village just down U.S. 264 from Bath. He's fished the river all his life and been a full-time commercial fisherman for the past 14 years. 

"The way I look at it, you take Mother Nature and you take man," Ormond explained as he sat in his living room smoking his pipe. 

"Mother Nature's got a water quality out there that's been there for years. Man come along, and he takes that same water and he'll shuffle it around and he'll put this and that into it. He'll do whatever he wants to with it to benefit man. And when he gets through with it, he puts it back in the river. 'The state has a standard for discharging that is so flimflammy and so weak that it shouldn't never be allowed to be discharged in the water out there." 

The state's inability or lack of desire to protect the river is a common complaint among the fishermen. State officials, they say, sit in Raleigh, passing laws but doing little to stop the pollution from entering the river. 

"Everything has a regulation," Ormond said wearily. "And what happens is that the basic looking after our natural resources gets lost. It's got tied up in bureaucratic politics, and our river is gone. And it shouldn't be that way. Our river is here for everybody to enjoy, not for someone to abuse." 

The source of the river's problems are many, but it's difficult for fishermen not to point to Texasgulf Chemicals Co. The company mines phosphate and makes fertilizer and phosphoric acid at a plant near Aurora on the south side of the river. The operation accounts for 46 percent of all phosphorus entering the river, as well as significant quantities of nitrogen, fluorides, and other pollutants. It has been there for 23 years and has been the target of fishermen's and environmentalists' ire for almost that long. 


The azure sky slowly started deepening to dark blue as the sun settled below the trees. Hints of pink and orange streaked the high clouds, and the light of the night's first star blinked above. 

The small knot of men stood on the river bank in the approaching dusk, beside Dallas Ormond's nets. They were talking about the river, and they were in general agreement that it will take more than fishermen and environmentalists to cure what ails it. 

Joe Jordan, a commercial fisherman, was among the men. Stocky and broad-chested, Jordan has convictions that are as firm as his handshake. "Shoot, it's gonna take more than us commercial fishermen," he said, as the others nodded. "It's gonna take the whole general public, whether you like to go out there with a fishin' pole or just get your feet wet, you're gonna have to raise hell." 

How do you get people hundreds of miles away interested in a river they pass maybe one time each summer as they head to the beach? Why should their legislators care when there are more pressing and immediate problems at home? Does a state that wrestles mightily with a ban on phosphates in household detergents have the gumption to save one of its rivers? 

Those are tough questions, and the river doesn't allow the answers to come easily. 

It's just not sick enough yet. People usually start paying attention when it's too late. They hear the screams, but not the whimpers. 

Willie Phillips is just making it as a commercial fisherman in Bath. He and the river are soulmates, but he doesn't think either of them can last. "I'm not optimistic about the future," he said. 

"In five years, you may come around here looking for a follow-up story. I won't be here, and other people won't be here either because we can't make it here any longer. Now that's a sad state of affairs, really." 

The sun was almost gone. Only its crown glimmered red above the dark treeline, but the horizon was aglow in orange. The water was peaceful and calm and shone in purple in the day's dying light. 

Maybe there is time for threatened species like Phillips and this river, though. After all, brown pelicans are back. So are osprey. Red wolves once again will roam the coastal swampland, and didn't someone say they saw a bald eagle or two?