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Albemarle-Pamlico Natl Estuary Pgm

Case Authors

Amy Samples, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP) in North Carolina was initiated in 1987 as part of the first round of estuaries to be recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program.

The program is characterized by a cooperative federal-state approach. The EPA Office of Water and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources serve as the primary program collaborators. The program is comprised of a Policy Board, Citizens Advisory Committee, Science and Technical Advisory Committee, Management Advisory Committee, and program staff.

APNEP accomplishes its conservation goals by partnering with other entities, coordinating regional initiatives, conducting demonstration and ecological restoration projects, assessing and monitoring the habitat, and conducting outreach to stakeholder groups.

Without legal authority over the resource, APNEP experiences difficulties influencing partner agencies that have their own mandates and responsibilities.

Variable participant engagement, differences between social and biologic time scales, and organizational shuffling also have complicated the management effort. Still, APNEP has created synergies in activity that would not exist without the program.


MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Focus on improving the resource at an ecosystem scale.
  • Collaboration: Use of partnerships to bridge socio-political jurisdictions and involve a range of stakeholders.
  • Complexity: Use of a science-based process to inform the drafting of a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan.
  • Adaptive Management: Development of a range of ecological indicators for use in evaluating the progress of management strategies.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program defines its mission as “to identify, restore and protect the significant resources of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System.”

In 1994, the Albemarle-Pamlico Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) was published as a blueprint to guide future decisions and actions while addressing a wide range of environmental protection issues.


The CCMP includes five management plans that address key regional goals:

  • Water Quality: Restore, maintain, and enhance water quality in the region so that it is fit for fish, wildlife, and recreation.
  • Vital Habitats: Conserve and protect vital fish and wildlife habitats, and maintain the natural heritage of the region.
  • Fisheries: Restore or maintain fisheries and provide for their long-term, sustainable, commercial and recreational use.
  • Stewardship: Promote responsible stewardship of the natural resources of the region.
  • Implementation: Implement the CCMP to protect environmental quality and use the most cost-effective and equitable strategies.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water


  • North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Key Parties

Many units of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources support the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program, along with other state offices, federal agencies, academic partners and non-governmental organizations, including:

North Carolina Department of Natural Resources

  • Division of Coastal Management
  • Division of Marine Fisheries
  • Division of Environmental Management
  • Division of Parks and Recreation
  • Division of Water Quality
  • Division of Water Resources
  • Ecosystem Enhancement Program
  • Information and Technology Services

Additional State of North Carolina Entities

  • Environmental Management Commission
  • Coastal Resources Commission
  • Department of Transportation
  • Marine Fisheries Commission
  • Wildlife Resources Commission


  • Department of Conservation and Recreation


  • Fish and Wildlife Service, Regions 4 and 5
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • National Parks Service
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


  • Duke University
  • Eastern Carolina University
  • University of North Carolina


  • North Carolina Coastal Federation
  • The Nature Conservancy


Program Structure

The following committees guide the implementation of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan:

  • Policy Board
  • Citizens Advisory Committee
  • Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee
  • Management Advisory Committee

These bodies include representatives from federal, state and local government agencies that are responsible for managing the area’s resources. They also include business leaders, educators, researchers and other community members.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Congress established the National Estuary Program in 1987 to improve the quality of estuaries of national significance. That same year the Albemarle-Pamlico system was designated as an estuary of national significance, recognizing its role in supporting commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic coast.

The Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system is economically important to the region. Commercial fishing, tourism, recreation, and resort development support the local and regional economy. The sound provides food, jobs, and a medium for transportation for the people who live in the area.

By the late 1980s, the declining health of the ecosystem was apparent in measures of key indicators.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Albemarle-Pamlico Sound is the second largest estuarine system in the continental United States. The Chowan, Roanoke, Pasquotank, Tar-Pamlico, and Neuse Rivers flow into the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound.

The region features a variety of habitat types, including pocosin wetlands, pine savannahs, hardwood swamp forests, bald cypress swamps, salt marshes, brackish marshes, freshwater marshes, and beds of submerged aquatic vegetation.

The varied conditions promote biodiversity. More than 200 animal species and 300 plant species have been recorded in the watershed. The National Audubon Society has designated approximately one million acres in the region as an Important Bird Area.

The estuarine system provides nursery areas for aquatic species that are important to more than 75 species of fish and shellfish. Remarkably, more than 70 percent of the commercially or recreationally valuable fish species of the Atlantic seaboard rely on the Albemarle-Pamlico system for some portion of their life cycle.


Mounting stresses endanger the social and ecological vitality of the system, including: 

  • Development: Development along the shoreline has diminished the amount of wetland in the ecosystem and destroyed submerged aquatic vegetation.
  • Excess nutrients: Water quality is negatively affected by excess nutrients entering the ecosystem from agricultural sources and poorly treated human waste.
  • Fisheries pressures: Disease and obstructions to fish spawning and the historic effects of fishing have reduced the amount of fish caught per unit of fishing effort.
  • Climate change: A rise in sea level and increasing annual temperatures from climate change will affect the ecosystem.


Major Strategies

The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program uses a variety of strategies to maintain and protect the natural resources of the ecosystem, including:

  • Establishing partnerships with other agencies.
  • Coordinating regional initiatives such as the North Carolina Coastal Habitat Protection Plan and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation partnership.
  • Conducting demonstration and ecological restoration projects.
  • Assessing and monitoring the resource through the Landscape Characterization Initiative and Citizens Monitoring Networks.
  • Conducting outreach and communications to a wide variety of stakeholders.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Scientific and technological issues have played major roles in the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP). A Science and Technology Initiative serves “to facilitate the establishment of an environmental information and decision support system relevant to those who influence local, state, and federal government actions within the Albemarle-Pamlico Region and who assess their implications.”

Assessment Objectives

The assessment process has the following objectives:

  • Document the status and trends in environmental conditions at the necessary scales for scientific investigation and policy development.
  • Evaluate the causes and consequences of changes in environmental status and trends.
  • Assess environmental, economic, and sociological impacts of alternative policies for dealing with these changes.
  • Forecast change and create an early warning detection.

As part of its assessment process, APNEP has developed a Status and Trends Report; Biological and Chemical Assessments of Sediment Collected from Eleven Locations in Pamlico Sound; Evaluation of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study Area Utilizing Population, Land Use and Water Quality Information; and the Chowan River Assessment, North Carolina: Riparian Shoreline Assessment Report.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Albermarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP) provides a “Directory of Monitoring Information Sources,” which is characterized by a user-friendly interface that allows navigation of monitoring data sets that are organized by river basin and sound. After selecting a location, a page loads that includes a narrative of existing monitoring efforts. This allows viewers to see the work that has been done in each region.

APNEP is currently developing an Indicator and Monitoring Plan to promote adaptive and informed management within the Albemarle-Pamlico region. Indicators were identified for six thematic areas:

  • Living aquatic resources
  • Water resources
  • Wetlands
  • Upland/terrestrial
  • Air/atmosphere
  • Human dimension

Input to Management Decisions

The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee produces one- to two-page Science and Technical Papers to promote scientific communication and outreach.



Ecosystem Changes

A 2007 review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Coastal Assessment showed encouraging trends for the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary.

The report concluded, “The overall condition of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Complex is rated good to fair. Data collected by the National Coastal Assessment and APNEP partners indicate that the complex is in good condition with respect to most indicators of estuarine health; however, factors such as chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, and sediment quality may signal declining health, especially in some tributary river areas.”

The upcoming revision of the Status and Trends Report is anticipated to provide greater insight into ecological impacts. Anecdotally, the number of fish kills has declined and nutrient inputs have been reduced. A statewide moratorium was imposed on the river herring fishery. It is unclear how much influence APNEP had on these outcomes.

Monitoring and Assessment

Following the extensive research of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Study in the late 1980s, researchers produced a substantial body of knowledge.

Through the process to draft the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, scientists reported an increased understanding of how to influence decision-making in the future.

APNEP’s early investment in geographic information systems facilitated ecosystem monitoring. The current investment in developing ecosystem indicators and a Monitoring Plan will further enable informed program review.

Restoration Activities & Changes in BMPs

By 2007, APNEP contributed to the restoration of more than 1,100 miles of fish habitat through the removal of three dams. Another two miles of riparian habitat along the Roanoke River was restored through livestock fencing and river- bank-stabilization practices.

Prior to 2001, APNEP was heavily involved in the promotion of gear to reduce bycatch from the fishery and reduce fisheries impacts.

Community Engagement and Education

Community engagement and education efforts are difficult to measure. Before the program was developed, public participation in coastal policy in North Carolina was limited to hearings on specific proposals and periodic land use planning efforts. The development of the Citizen Advisory Committees provided a new way for members of the public to communicate concerns directly to the managers of the resource. The committees also increased the desire of resource managers to involve citizens.

APNEP has continued to raise community awareness and education levels by using listening sessions, building partnerships, and conducting demonstration projects.

Coordination and Networking

APNEP enables partners to work towards common goals. In the past, each division might work on a small aspect of a larger project. Though it is not clear what level of coordination would be occurring without the APNEP, the program enables stakeholders to reduce overlap and redundancy. These conversations allow agencies to articulate their needs and work from a common set of information.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP) in North Carolina has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • Dedicated Individuals and Leadership: Strong leadership and the enthusiasm of the participants sustained the APNEP.
  • Political Will and Support: The support of elected officials in North Carolina and administrators in the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources was critical. Also important was the influence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which supported the elevation of the APNEP to a higher organizational level within the structure of the state government.
  • Coordinating Capacity: APNEP’s ability to bring different agencies and non-governmental organizations to the table was important. Participants in the program say it can facilitate connections that lead to action. One partner, for instance, may identify a need, but lack the money to address it. APNEP can work with other organizations with various pots of money to fund a project.


The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP) in North Carolina has encountered the following challenges:

  • Balancing Citizen and Technical Roles: Determining the roles of participants is important when collaborating across sectors and levels of specialization. Early in the program, there were questions about the appropriate role of citizens. Because of a conflict between the roles of citizen and science, there were frustrations in developing the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP), leading individuals to drop out of the planning process and oppose the draft plan.
  • Balancing Science and Management: Many studies produced in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Study lacked management interpretation. More recently, the Management Advisory Committee has not been very active, allowing research efforts to progress without strong input from representatives of the agencies expected to implement strategies that are based on the research findings. To address this challenge, the program wants to reinvigorate the committee.
  • Ecosystem-Level Thinking and Action: The 1994 CCMP emphasizes managing a system at an ecosystem scale. But the plan is actually rather species specific, including site-specific actions and implementation efforts. In revising the plan, APNEP staff acknowledge the challenge of tackling a broad scale while keeping the plan feasible. Although they can’t work on everything, they want to be comprehensive, which poses a challenge. The Policy Board will be asked to indicate priorities for the program.
  • Creating an Adaptive Approach: In revising the CCMP, contributors sought a plan that offers flexibility and a blueprint from which to base annual workplans. Adaptive approaches are sometimes mired by the delay in seeing the outcomes of management strategies. In addition, biological timeframes and social timeframes rarely coincide.
  • Transitioning from Assessment to EBM: Although the program has been in place for more than 20 years, ecosystem-based management is still unfolding. From 1987 to 1994, ANPEP was busy with the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study and development of the CCMP. Though these are vital precursors to an informed management scheme, they have delayed implementation of EBM.
  • Organizational Placement: The program has been housed within several different units of government, which affected its influence. Several staff reminisce about the brief period in which APNEP was hosted directly by the Office of the Secretary. They feel the current nesting of the program diminishes some of its flexibility and influence.
  • Mobilizing State Agency Action: The program has struggled to mobilize resource management agencies. It lacks the authority to require action by state agencies. Coordination of agency action is further complicated by pre-existing mandates and missions which may influence willingness to compromise and collaborate.
  • Maintaining Public Concern and Engagement: Maintaining public engagement and concern can be difficult for large, long-term projects.
  • Resource Limitation and Small Staff: Time, personnel, and funding constraints are cited frequently by participants in the program. The scale of the program area compounds the resource limitations of money and staff. A full-time staff of four people, for instance, has the responsibility for the 23,000 square-mile program area.
  • Sustaining Volunteer Engagement: Volunteers are often deployed to fill organizational needs untended by permanent employees. The program moves slowly because of its reliance on volunteers.


Lessons Learned

People involved in the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program (APNEP) have learned:

  • Importance of Engagement: Engage your local, state and federal partners. APNEP uses the Policy Board and advisory committees to engage its partners. One main function of the program is to secure buy-in from partners.
  • It Takes Money: Grants can be used to further outreach efforts and achieve positive outcomes. Grants can be used as leverage with partners, and encourage different groups to come together to work on a common project.
  • Invest in Community: Invest in community awareness and engagement with regard to the relevant environmental issues of the day.
  • Know Your Science: The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee includes people with a solid mix of expertise and experience.
  • Support from Above: Support from above is crucial. Upper management or anybody in a position to influence the program must understand what it is trying to achieve.
  • Economics Matter: Given the economic downturn, the state has experienced a budget crunch, and the diminished resources available to the state have affected the program. When the state had more resources, the program could enjoy greater flexibility to consider the big picture. Right now, the program has to manage for the day-to-day.
  • Have Patience: Get upper management to acknowledge that setting up partnerships requires careful preparation. Immediate products of the program won’t be readily apparent. Time is needed to plan, coordinate and integrate. Once the frameworks are developed, however, future efforts may come easier.
  • Define Ecosystem-Based Management: Reach a common consensus on the meaning of EBM. Decide how the program goals and objectives fit within that EBM framework.
  • Hire Contractors: If funding is available, hire contractors to do certain projects. Volunteers may be highly skilled or experienced, but volunteer work may take a long time to produce a product.


Website Links

Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program: