Strategic Habitat Areas

Explore the regions and area nominations with the map below. Clicking an area will bring more detailed information about the nomination. If the map is not displaying properly, view it in a standalone browser window.


Goal two of the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan is to "Identify, designate and protect strategic habitat areas." The purpose of strategic habitat areas is to provide guidance and aid in protecting and enhancing coastal fisheries.


Strategic habitat areas are specific locations of individual fish habitats or systems of fish habitats that have been identified to provide exceptional habitat functions or that are particularly at risk due to imminent threats, vulnerability or rarity.

Tab/Accordion Items

  • Subset of the coastal ecosystem
  • Best of the best
  • Relatively unaltered
  • Maintains biodiversity and ecological functions
  • Network of habitat connections

Strategic habitat areas are a subset of the overall system that includes a representative portion of each unique habitat so that overall biodiversity and ecological functions are maintained. We can't protect everything, so this analysis is an effort to identify the best of the best – that is, areas that have high quality habitats that are relatively unaltered and maintain biodiversity supporting multiple species, life stages and ecological functions, such as critical areas for spawning, juvenile development or for improving water quality. Additionally, it is important to maintain a network of habitat connections throughout the system, like stepping stones for fish migrating to critical areas such as nursery or spawning grounds.

The coastal area of North Carolina is split into four regions for planning purposes. Nominations for the strategic habitat areas are complete for two of North Carolina's four coastal regions.

ecological function chartAreas that have high ecological function (nursery areas, spawning grounds) and low alteration levels (disturbance by human activity) would qualify as strategic habitat areas.

Areas that are classified as "exceptional" with high ecological function and low alteration levels are areas where managers should focus protection efforts.

Areas that are at risk and have high ecological function but are moderately altered are good candidates for restoration or enhancement.

1. Priority Fishery Identification

Strategic habitat areas are selected with the goal of protecting and enhancing coastal fisheries. The first step in selecting these areas is to identify the important fisheries in each region. Examples of priority fisheries include oysters, bay scallops, shrimp, river herring, flounder, spotted sea trout, red drum, gag grouper and black seabass.

2. Habitat Identification

The next step is to identify the habitats that are important to the priority species. All life-stages, from larval to adult and the habitats that are utilized at each stage must be considered. Because most species utilize multiple habitats in their lifetime, the focus of selection is on areas that are important for nurseries, spawning, refuge, feeding, etc. Habitats like sea grass and oyster reefs are important to most priority species and are therefore selected as part of the strategic habitat areas with higher representation than other habitats.

3. Alteration Level Selection

The level of human alteration for each habitat must then be considered. If a habitat is highly altered then its ability to carry out the ecological functions that are critical to the targeted species will also be highly altered. On the other hand, habitats that are not highly altered provide more and higher quality services to the priority species. Common alterations, like the creation of marinas, urban and agricultural development and the installation of shoreline hardening infrastructure like bulkheads, all degrade a habitat and reduce the services that it can provide.

4. Expert Modification by Advisory Committee and Division Staff

Scores from habitat quality and alteration level are input into a model to select potential strategic habitat areas. These potential areas are then reviewed by an advisory committee made up of state and federal agency staff and academia, with additional input from Division of Marine Fisheries' staff, to ensure that the computed results made sense.

The advisory committee asks:

  • Do the selected areas include habitats that are rare, vulnerable and diverse?
  • Are there existing ecological designations that suggest or confirm that an area is likely of high importance, such as a primary nursery area or national wildlife refuge?
  • Is there data that indicates high fish-use of an area?
  • Are the areas selected the proper size and connected to each other well enough? Ideally the areas selected are not too large and not too small and serve as stepping stones to other strategic habitat areas along the coast.
  • Are the areas regionally important, like an inlet providing access to the ocean or an oyster reef providing large amounts of larvae that seeds other reefs?

Future management actions will focus on non-regulatory conservation measures, primarily associated with land-based activities, such as:

  • Incorporating strategic habitat areas into land acquisition for conservation planning by environmental groups and federal, state and local agencies.
  • Pursuing restoration projects that would benefit strategic habitat areas.
  • Pursuing funding for agriculture cost share programs to implement best management practices near strategic habitat areas.
  • Using strategic habitat areas in local land use planning.
  • Prioritizing funding for enhancement and restoration of fish passage, hydrology and habitats.