In response to increasing community concerns about  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination of the Cape Fear River the Study of Alligator and Fish Exposure – North Carolina (SAFEwater-NC) began in May of 2018 with pilot funding from North Carolina Sea Grant.

This scientific investigation began in response to questions from community members from Wilmington, NC raising concerns related to health of fish caught from state inland and coastal waters that were contaminated with the PFAS GenX.

The goal of this research study is to better understand the extent of PFAS exposure and bioaccumulation in Striped Bass, catfish and other fishes in North Carolina with a focus on the Cape Fear River basin. The results should help the community understand how PFAS exposure is impacting environmental health, by examining the health-related effects these man-made chemical pollutants have on the local wildlife.

The information gathered from this investigation will yield evidence to strengthen guidelines for fish consumption. There is concern within the coastal community of Wilmington and the surrounding upstream Cape Fear River basin that consuming fish from the Cape Fear River may increase PFAS exposures to cause adverse health effects. There is currently no published information on PFAS levels in most Cape Fear River fish.

The philosophy of ‘One Health’: the health of people is directly connected to the health of animals and the environment.


One part of the SAFEwater-NC study has focused on Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis). Commercial and recreational spending on striped bass fishing is valued at over $94 million to the gross domestic product of North Carolina and was estimated to have supported 1,316 jobs in 2016. (

Striped Bass is an important recreational and commercial fish in North Carolina. In April and May of 2018, we partnered with NC Wildlife Resource Commission during their yearly capture surveys to obtain a quick blood sample from Striped Bass along the Cape Fear River. At another ‘reference’ location (site of ‘low’ background PFAS contamination), we caught and sampled Striped bass from an aquaculture near the Pamlico river. Our first study found some dramatic differences between Cape Fear River fish and aquaculture facility.

Cape Fear Striped Bass have:

  • Over 40 times higher concentration of PFAS in their blood compared to the aquaculture facility. Those elevated concentrations of PFAS were associated with increases in markers of liver and immune dysfunction.
  • The impacts of those changes on the health of the fishery remain unknown. Active research to determine those impacts is ongoing.