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Virginia Ocean Planning

Red Knots - Photo by Barry Truitt TNC (permission from photographer required before use) 

With new and expanding coastal and ocean uses emerging and Virginia’s coastal population increasing (from 3.6 million in 1986 to 5.1 million in 2010), the pressure is mounting to ensure that there is space for both traditional and new uses and that conflicts are minimized.

In order to ensure continued, healthy growth, now and in the future, it is important to engage all ocean users in the process of creating a comprehensive understanding of the resources and demands off our coast, how we can minimize conflicts, and how we can maximize economic and ecologic productivity.

Through a 5-year grant from NOAA (CZMA Section 309), the Virginia CZM Program has been supporting the development of a comprehensive ocean planning process to sustain our current ocean industries and needs, allow for new uses such as offshore energy development, and protect the ocean's habitats, wildlife and overall health.  This has become an increasingly difficult challenge as coastal populations have grown, ocean uses have diversified and intensified and overall ocean health has declined.  

About $100,000 a year between October 2011 and September 2016 is being used to develop a Virginia Marine Spatial Plan for the waters off Virginia’s coast in concert with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO),  and the “regional planning body”.  

Funds enabled development of the Virginia Marine Debris Plan, including an analysis and prioritization of key marine debris issues and actions to reduce marine debris. A Virginia Marine Debris Summit was held in February 2013, to inform completion of the Virginia Marine Debris Plan, and a second Virginia Marine Debris Summit was held in March 2016 and focused on the status of implementing the plan and next steps (see sidebar for more detail and to view summit summaries and presentations). The VIrginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan was presented to the Virginia Coastal Policy Team and MARCO and adopted. Decreasing marine debris is one of the goals within MARCO’s set of “Water Quality” goals.   

Read more about the Virginia CZM Program's "Ocean Strategy."

Stakeholder Engagement

As a member of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO), the Virginia CZM Program and a team of contractors led by Monmouth University through grants from NOAA, sought input from marine industries - commercial and recreational fishers, offshore energy, tourism, ports, shipping and navigation; the Department of Defense; recreational users; and conservation groups to inform the Virginia CZM Program’s comprehensive ocean planning efforts. 

In June 2012, the Virginia CZM Program invited representatives of a variety of ocean users and interests to a first-ever ocean planning kick-off meeting in Richmond.  These ocean stakeholders represented the shipping, ports, fishing, boating, recreation, offshore wind energy, and tourism industries as well as the U.S. military, Virginia Atlantic coast local governments, academia and conservation organizations.

  Virginia Ocean Planning Stakeholders Meeting June 2012

The purpose of this first meeting in Virginia was threefold:

1.   To present progress to date in gathering data on the location of ocean resources and uses;

2.   To collect participants’ ideas as to who else should be included in the ocean planning process; and

3.   To solicit ideas about how ocean planning should proceed.

Meeting Summary (PDF)

During the meeting, ocean stakeholders discussed continued collection of data on the location of areas important to them to continue to expand and improve the data in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean's (MARCO's) Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal.  This regional portal is a tool for visualizing various sectors’ ocean needs.

At the June 2012 Ocean Stakeholders Meeting, Virginia CZM Program staff also demonstrated a new tool that allows groups of people to easily map and annotate areas that are important to them and immediately pull that data into a Geographic Information System (GIS).  This technique is called Participatory GIS (PGIS) – a tool that the Virginia CZM Program is beginning to use to ensure that all ocean stakeholders’ needs and future plans can be mapped.

Some of the biggest data gaps identified during the Ocean Stakeholders Meeting were maps of migration corridors for marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds and key ocean habitats such as coldwater corals, maps of recreational uses and maps depicting future shipping needs.  So Virginia CZM set to work to begin filling these data gaps - seeproject table below.

Mapping Virginia's Atlantic Coast Recreational Uses

Participatory GIS Workshop

In July 2012, the Virginia CZM Program and Accomack-Northampton PDC, with expert help from NOAA, co-hosted an Alantic Coast Recreational Use Workshop at the Eastern Shore Community College. Participants mapped 22 distinct recreational uses occurring along Virginia’s Atlantic coast, from the shoreline out to the 200 mile US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary - everything from scuba diving, to charter fishing, to kayaking. 

Experts from NOAA taught the Participatory Geographic Information System (PGIS) process to facilitators and GIS technicians from Virginia’s CZM Program as well as from Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.  PGIS is a new tool that allows groups of people to easily map and annotate areas that are important to them and immediately pull that data into GIS. 

About 45 stakeholders from Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore were divided into 5 groups.  Each group mapped both the general footprint of each of the 22 uses and the dominant use areas within each:

Virginia Atlantic Coast Recreational Use Categories Mapped:

  • Boating for Hire Uses - Charter trips for fishing, diving & snorkeling, party cruises, wildlife & scenic viewing, & transport
  • Recreational Fishing Uses - From motorized vessels, from kayak & non-motorized vessels, dive fishing, from the shore
  • General Recreational Uses - Motorized boating, paddling, sailing, scuba/snorkel/diving, shore use, water sports, swimming

The data were processed and maps created.  Virginia CZM Program staff shared the maps with stakeholders to ensure their accuracy.  The final maps are available on Virginia Coastal GEMS and can be viewed with other coastal resources layers.  Once the other mid-Atlantic states complete their mapping workshops, all five states' data will be synthesized into regional maps for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean's (MARCO's) Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal.  

Recreational Use PGIS Workshop Flyer (PDF)
Virginia Atlantic Coast Recreational Use Metadata (XML) 

Aerial Surveys of Recreational Use

Aerial survey to identify recreational uses of Virginia's coast and oceanVirginia CZM funded the A-N PDC and Virginia Marine Resources Commission to conduct aerial surveys of recreational uses along Virginia’s Atlantic Coast.  Over 1,000 geo-coded photos were taken during August and September in 2012 on week days and weekends.  These were used as another set of data to validate the maps produced from the PGIS workshops. 

Mapping Shipping Uses in Virginia

Cargo ShipIn September 2012, Virginia CZM Program staff organized a meeting with the Virginia Port Authority, the Virginia Pilot Association, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the MARCO Ocean Data Portal contractors to ensure that we have all the relevant data and maps regarding current and future shipping spatial needs.   As the size of container ships continues to grow, (which increases fuel and labor efficiencies), maintaining shipping channels with adequate depths of 50-60 feet for these gigantic ships will be critical.  The shipping industry will need the deepest offshore channels to be designated for shipping, and dredge spoil sites will have to be protected as well.   At this meeting participants identified an important channel that runs northeast from the Chesapeake Bay which will be critical to consider in ocean planning efforts.   

Meeting Summary Notes (pdf) 

Whale Survey Off Virginia Coast

Breaching Humpback Whale off Virginia Beach - Virginia Aquarium

Offshore Energy Planning for Marine Protected Species off of Virginia’s Coast: A Synthesis of Aerial Surveys in the Proximity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area (VA WEA) from 2012-2015 - Virginia Aquarium Foundation Scientific Report 2016-04 (PDF)

Humans have long been fascinated by whales, but unfortunately, until recently that fascination centered on hunting them for their, meat, bones, oil and baleen.  Populations of many species of whales are dangerously low and it is still critical that, as we plan for new and expanded ocean uses, we find ways to protect the migration corridors and food supplies of whales.  Whale-watching is fast becoming a lucrative, sustainable  new industry in Virginia as evidenced by the excitement of humpback whale watching off Virginia Beach last winter.

In an effort to better understand whale activity off Virginia’s coast, the Virginia CZM Program teamed with the Virginia Aquarium and through a national competition for NOAA funds secured grants to conduct whale surveys beginning in October 2012.  Spatial data collected was added to the MARCO Ocean Data Portal.     

Grantee  Grant Year  Task  Project 
Environmental Law Institute  2006  1.06  Assessment for Off-shore Energy Development Impact Readiness: State Comparisons and Recommendations 
  2007 1.04  Assessment for Off-shore Energy Development Impact Readiness: Implementation Evaluation; Air Program and Dunes 
  2007  91.02  Assessment for Off-shore Energy Development Impact Readiness: Identifying Potential Impacts 
Longwood University  2014  95.03  Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan Refinement and Implementation of Balloon Reduction Social Marketing Campaign 

2015  95.03  Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan Refinement and Implementation of Balloon Reduction Social Marketing Campaign 
The Nature Conservancy  2005  92.08  “Ecological Marine Units”: Mapping Natural Communities in the Ocean 
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation  2011  95.02  Marine Debris Summit 
  2013  95.02  Offshore Energy Planning: Documenting Location of Megafauna off Virginia’s Coast 
   2014  95.04  Offshore Energy Planning: Continued Documentation of Megafauna off Virginia’s Coast Using Aerial Survey 
Virginia Commonwealth University  2011  95.01  Virginia Ocean Spatial Plan 
  2014  95.01  Virginia Ocean Plan and Atlantic Sturgeon EMF Study 
  2015  95.01  Virginia Ocean Plan 
Virginia Commonwealth University/ Virginia Department of Environmental Quality  2012  95  Virginia Ocean Plan 
2013  95.01  Virginia Ocean Plan 
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries  2015  95.02  Virginia Marine Mammal Conservation Plan (pending) 
William & Mary Center for Conservation Biology 
2007  2.03  Developing a conceptual framework for evaluating the impacts of wind farms on migratory birds along the mid-Atlantic Coast 


NOAA logo 

For comments or questions concerning this program's web pages, contact the Virginia Witmer.

This website is provided by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program through a federal Coastal Zone Management Act grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.

Virginia CZM Program logo

Protecting, restoring, and strengthening our coastal ecosystems and economy.

New Publications Available!

Offshore Energy Planning for Marine Protected Species off of Virginia’s Coast: A Synthesis of Aerial Surveys in the Proximity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area (VA WEA) from 2012-2015  -  Aerial survey of whale populations off Virginia's coast completed by Virginia Aquarium Foundation, through a NOAA grant from Virginia CZM.  Download the report...

Virginia's Valuable Coast and Ocean Waters

  • the deepest port on the east coast of the US that may soon see a significant increase in large shipping traffic with the 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal
  • the largest naval base in the world
  • a nascent offshore wind energy industry that is beginning to make big investments as they prepare to develop offshore wind farms
  • a tourism industry that is Virginia’s second largest economic activity with coastal tourism representing a large proportion
  • a seafood industry that provides thousands of jobs
  • a coast and ocean that support fabulous wildlife including whales, dolphins, seabirds, cold water corals and offshore canyons  

Virginia Marine Debris Summit Logo
Virginia Marine Debris Summits

As we work on ocean planning in Virginia and accommodating expanding and new uses, we must also work hard to clean up the ocean.  One of the biggest pollution problems in the ocean is marine debris – especially plastics of all sorts and derelict fishing gear.

In February 2013 and March 2016, the Virginia CZM Program sponsored the first two Virginia Marine Debris Summits, partnering with the Virginia Aquarium, Clean Virginia Waterways, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Commonwealth University to host the summits.See the results of these summits and read more about development of a Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan.     

Filling Biological Data Gaps in Mid-Atlantic Ocean Waters

Multibeam Sonar Image of Norfolk Canyon
Good progress is being made in filling identified data gaps for biological resources in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean.

With support from NOAA, BOEM (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) and the Department of Energy, mapping of canyons, corals, whales and seabirds is underway.  The need to find the most suitable places for offshore energy has been the motivation for BOEM, DOE and the Virginia CZM Program to collect this important biological data for the region.

See detail of activities related to mapping of Mid-Atlantic canyons, cold water coral habitats, and seabirds on the MARCO website.

About 50 miles off the coast of Virginia the flat, coastal “shelf” drops away to form the continental “slope” which then levels off to the deep sea floor. The vertical slopes are cut into hundreds of canyons with exposed rock and consolidated mud providing hard surfaces to which organisms can attach (unlike the sandy surface of the shallow shelf and deep sea floor).  Corals and other sessile sea life adhere to these canyon walls creating a rich habitat for fish and invertebrates (tilefish, hake, lobster, red crab) and other sea life.  The canyons are favorite fishing grounds for humans and whales.  New technologies, such as multi-beam sonar, are making it easier and less expensive to explore and map our canyons.  In May 2012, NOAA invited the MARCO states to help prioritize which mid-Atlantic canyons NOAA’s ship, the Okeanos Explorer, would map.  The research cruise departed from Norfolk and ended in Rhode Island (see
).  In October 2012, this ship went out again to collect more data off Virginia’s coast. 

In summer and fall of 2012, NOAA’s ship the Nancy Foster spent 43 days exploring the canyons and shipwrecks off the Delmarva with funding from NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (see http://deepwatercanyons.
).   Drs. Steve Ross and Sandra Brooke, lead researchers abroad the Nancy Foster, will go out again in 2013.  This Atlantic Deepwater Canyon Project is a four year effort involving several federal agencies, universities, NGO’s and European collaborators.  Some key findings so far include a methane cold seep, vast fields of bubblegum coral, first records of colonies of a reef building coral called Lopehelia pertusa, large stands of other deep sea corals, catshark spawning areas on coral and shipwrecks, and documentation of extensive fishing impacts on shipwrecks and coral habitats


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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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