The Lake Across the Sound

Rob Temple

Stakeholders discuss the current and future health of Lake Mattamuskeet.

On Monday, December 3rd a partnership of Hyde County, it’s Soil and Water Conservation District, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the N.C. Coastal Federation hosted a public gathering at Martelle’s Feed House in Engelhard to present their Watershed Restoration plan for the Lake Mattamuskeet watershed to interested residents and stakeholders.

I attended the gathering, not simply as a fan of Martelle’s renowned East Caroline barbecue or even as the sometimes dutiful husband/reporter of Ocracoke Current’s editor, but as a seriously concerned stakeholder.  For years one of my favorite benefits of Hyde County residency has been the availability of terrific crabbing at Lake Mattamuskeet.

The Lake Across the Sound

Although I’d been taken to the lake numerous times on birding expeditions as a child back in the 1940s and 50s, it wasn’t until Ocracoke resident Tom Payne introduced me to the wonders of Mattamuskeet crabbing a dozen or so years ago that I began making frequent trips on my own, often with Tom, other friends or family.

The crabbing was consistently good to excellent right up until a couple of seasons ago when it abruptly went south.  So, when I learned that the overall health of the lake had in fact taken a dramatic turn for the worse a couple of years ago and that numerous agencies and organizations were working together on a plan to fix it, I put my chronic aversion to meetings on “pause” and boarded the early Swan Quarter ferry.

I was pleased, but not surprised, to find Tom Payne himself behind me on the ferry. Riding with him were other Ocracoke media folks. There appeared to be about 100 people at Martelle’s when we arrived. Besides the various agency representatives there were several academic consultants and a good number of farmers and other property owners from Mainland Hyde.  We were joined at the Ocracoke table by our county commissioner, Tom Pahl. 

There were two hour-long panel discussions before lunch and one afterward. We were told right away of the more serious concerns: SAVs (submerged aquatic vegetation on which the lake’s fauna depends) has all but vanished in the last two years (along with chlorophyll-a) while pH levels along with cyanobacteria and turbidity have all increased sharply in that time. Another factor which seems to have increased in that time are the carp as we were told by a knowledgeable young graduate student from NC State who shared some of her Master’s thesis research with us. 

And, alas, chemistry and biology are not the only areas of concern. Hydrology! For nearly two centuries the human residents of the area have been tinkering with the flow of water in and out of the lake (which today has only about a quarter of its original surface area).  It didn’t take me long to realize that my concern for an occasional steamed crab dinner was rather weak compared to the concerns of farmers and other homeowners facing increased flood risks.

The Lake Across the Sound

While the chemical and biological issues discussed are intricately interconnected, the most troubling hydrologic issue seems ominously related to the elephant in the room: GLOBAL WARMING. 

From the water management scientists we heard some disturbing numbers relating to sealevel rise in surrounding Pamlico Sound.  Hydrology 101 says that, gravity being what it is, in order for Lake Mattamuskeet and its tributaries to drain into Pamlico Sound, the level of the lake has to be higher than that of the sound.  The steeper the gradient, the stronger the flow.

By the time the final discussion was winding down there was a palpable gloom in the building and several people expressed in their questions what we were all undoubtedly thinking:  Is there hope? While we see now that these problems won’t be fixed overnight, are there some goals that are achievable in the near term? “Low-hanging fruit” as one of the panelists termed it.

The good news is that, yes there are some steps we can take.  The meeting itself was a notable first step – getting community input on the proposed plan which allows the plan to qualify for state funding.  While it seemed clear that different stakeholders have different priorities, most of the presenters seemed encouraged by the turnout and the general interest in saving the lake.

Having an hour between the  end of the meeting and the return ferry to Ocracoke, I decided to take a “scud” out across the causeway bisecting the lake. As soon as I turned off 264 onto 94 I saw a white-tailed deer on the shoulder.  A little farther along we a couple of American egrets and a small flock of about a dozen tundra swans but for this time of year it seemed pretty barren.

Charles Kurault trail
Charles Kurault trail

In the middle of the causeway I stopped at the Charles Kuralt viewing pier to check out the small island for birds.  A couple from out of state had arrived a little before me.  As I scanned the trees with the mounted binoculars, I told them I’d once counted three bald eagles in those trees.  They told me they had too even though there were no birds at all there at the moment.

I told them a little about the meeting I’d just come from and they were surprised and saddened to learn of the lake’s declining health.  Having arrived at the pier from the northwest, they told me the only birds they’d seen on the lake this visit was a small cluster of swans along the Fairfield shore so, rather than head back to 264, I decided to cruise over and have a look. I was able to get a photo on my phone from a small private pier and boat ramp just east of the road.

The Lake Across the Sound

On my way back across the lake I saw a local couple with several fishing rods on one of the little docks to the west of the road. The man was in the process of reeling in a fish so I parked and strolled out to have a look. I was just in time to see him land an 18” fish of a kind I’d never seen.  I congratulated the angler but he was not very excited about his catch.  

“What is it?” I asked

“Round here we call it a freshwater blackfish,” he said.  “It has another name but I can’t think of it right now. Some people south of here like to eat ‘em but I throw ‘em back. This is about the fifth one I’ve caught today and not the biggest by far.  They were never here until two years ago.”

Two years ago. Hmmm.  Interesting.


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