Warming Waters Bring New Marine Species to NC, But Chase Away Some Familiar Ones


By Jay Price

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Bull sharks and lion fish are among the species becoming more common in North Carolina, while black sea bass and other fish are getting harder to find.

You won't see it if you visit North Carolina's coast this summer, but there will be a life-and-death drama playing out all around you, beneath the surface of the Atlantic and the sprawling sounds.

The effects of climate change on marine life are accelerating, and there are few places in the world where that's more obvious than North Carolina, which has an unusually diverse collection of aquatic species.

The state's warming waters have triggered an unpredictable game of musical chairs for marine species, with some heading north for cooler water, some showing up for the first time, and still others getting more common.

In recent years, for example, the lion fish, an invasive species native to the Pacific that has venomous spines, has moved into the state's waters and has become a dominant predator in some places. And one study documented strong populations of Florida stone crabs in parts of the Pamlico Sound, well north of where scientists expected to find such densities of them.

Dangerous sharks move into N.C. waters

Also on the Pamlico, Charles Bangley of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland has been doing research on the bull shark.

It's one of most dangerous species to humans and has been blamed for many attacks in recent years. Bull sharks are large, aggressive, and often swim close to the beach.

The bull shark's population is down in some places. But on the Pamlico, the number of juvenile bull sharks caught has been increasing. Bangley thinks the species has begun to use the Pamlico as a key nursery, and the reason may be the warming water.

"We've looked at a couple of different analyses, trying to see what kind of environmental factors are associating with it," he said. "There's a little bit going on with salinity, but it seems like the signal that lights up a lot is temperature."

In parts of the sound where scientists have tracked temperatures, the water is perhaps as much as 3.6 degrees warmer than in 1972.

On a recent night, Bangley went fishing for sharks in the Pamlico. He was hoping to find babies - sharks that were born in the previous month.

"That's proof that this is what's called a primary nursery, which is the term for a nursery area where they're actually born," he said.

He was also on the lookout for older juveniles, which likely were born in the Pamlico last summer.

"Bull sharks in particular seem to show a lot of site fidelity to places where they're born," he said. 

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