North Carolina’s bays and estuaries attract millions of visitors from across the globe annually. The state has long been a leader in effective coastal conservation and is updating its Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP), which state agencies use as a guide. To learn more about the CHPP, The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working with partners in the state to protect vital coastal habitats, spoke with Jess Hawkins, former chief of fisheries management for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and liaison with the Marine Fisheries Commission, a governor-appointed policy board. He now runs Crystal Coast Ecotours.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Did you always want to work on coastal and marine issues?
A: I grew up at the end of a four-mile dirt road on the Pamlico River, which feeds a major estuary in North Carolina. One grandfather owned land along the river and turned it into Hawkins Beach, where people could swim, fish from the pier, or take out boats. I saw a variety of life in that brackish water, from bottlenose dolphins to blue crabs to largemouth bass, and even sharks. And I remember watching as thousands of acres of seagrasses that attracted huge waterfowl populations in the winter started to disappear, and algae and fish kills followed.
That grandfather also owned a farm; farming and fishing were the main jobs for a lot of people in eastern North Carolina then. My other grandfather came from Pennsylvania, and his father was the first person to catch the state fish, the red drum, with a rod and reel. I loved spending time on the water.
Q: North Carolina’s coast attracts tourists from all over the world, but tell us about the local communities.
A: The people who live here grew up fishing and hunting and appreciate the beauty and bountiful nature that we’re blessed with. They are very warm and accepting. They’re also independent and cautious and willing to adapt to what nature throws at them. In the coastal area I’m from, Carteret and Beaufort counties, people are used to being on the water, so they know how dynamic and powerful it can be. They adapt to nature so they can remain here, because it’s a wonderful way of life. And with so many universities and federal and state laboratories involved, Carteret County is a small town with a bigger perspective.
People from “off”—what we “downeasters” call people who moved here—also realize the natural beauty of the area. They want the water and habitats to be healthy and safe for swimming and fishing. North Carolina is in the…