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CoastLine: Frying Pan Shoals study to document fish behavior and shoals makeup -- possibly for beach sand

Frying Pan Shoals is just off the NC coast, seaward of Bald Head Island
Google maps
Frying Pan Shoals is just off the NC coast, seaward of Bald Head Island

Finding sand for beach renourishment is a never-ending quest for beach towns. Could Frying Pan Shoals be the answer? BOEM is paying for a study of the shoals as the National Marine Fisheries Service worries dredging could harm this essential fish habitat.

As the human population in the Cape Fear region grows, the beaches remain key draws. But they’re eroding on a regular basis, and according to a 2020 analysis by Kearns & West, local beach municipalities have spent $137 million to put sand back on their beaches over the last couple of decades.

Government officials continue to look for beach-quality sand sources to keep the tourists coming, and protect public infrastructure and private property. But those sand sources are diminishing.

Some sand comes from maintenance dredging of navigational channels. But it’s not enough and it’s not always beach-quality.

Recently, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the same federal agency that manages the leases for wind energy in the Atlantic, has started to look at Frying Pan Shoals as a possible source for sand. The shoals are on the seaward southeastern side of Bald Head Island.

The National Marine Fisheries Service considers Frying Pan Shoals an essential fish habitat. NMFS worries that dredging operations could hurt the resource for both commercial and recreational fishermen.

BOEM is paying for a study that will examine what Frying Pan Shoals is made of, who lives there, who breeds there, who moves through the area and when. If dredging takes place during the study, scientists will also observe how long it takes the ecosystem to recover.

Map of the Cape Fear region with BOEM wind planning areas
Kearns & West
Map of the Cape Fear region with BOEM wind planning areas

One of the species researchers hope to understand better from this four-year study: Atlantic sturgeon. Federal officials banned fishing of Atlantic sturgeon back in 1998. Fourteen years later, officials added the Atlantic sturgeon to its list of endangered species. There are currently only five population segments with the Cape Fear River being a key system supporting the Carolinas population.

UNCW Fisheries Science Professor Fred Scharf with an endangered Atlantic sturgeon
NC Division Wildlife Resources
UNCW Fisheries Science Professor Fred Scharf with an endangered Atlantic sturgeon

If these fish are found in rivers, why would ocean dredging affect them? We explore that question in this episode.

There are a host of other species that raise important questions about the impacts of dredging, including several different types of shark, blue crab, shrimp, King and Spanish Mackerel, and striped bass.

Researchers also want to know how dredging would affect the benthic environment – the ecosystem at the ocean floor that holds invertebrate crustaceans, zooplankton, phytoplankton, and supports the entire marine life cycle.

And that $137 million outlay by local governments for sand? If regional collaboration came into play, researchers want to know whether costs would drop for everyone. They’re also considering the effect that nourishing one local beach could have on neighboring beaches with different goals, for example, Masonboro Island.


Dr. Joe Long, Associate Professor, Physics and Physical Oceanography Department, University of North Carolina Wilmington; Director, Coastal Engineering Program

Dr. Fred Scharf, Professor of Fisheries Science, Department of Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina Wilmington


Coastal Hazards Lab @ UNCW

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management - Atlantic OCS Region

Atlantic sturgeon migration and population dynamics in the Cape Fear River, Dr. Fred Scharf

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.