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Wildlife and Habitat Conservation Along the Virginia Seaside Water Trail

Oyster Catcher

Shorebirds are among the most migratory groups of animals known to science.

Some shorebird species may spend as long as two-thirds of their annual cycle in migration and may travel 30,000 kilometers per year. 

The barrier island system along Virginia’s Eastern Shore supports significant numbers of migrant shorebirds and is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve with international status (i.e. host to >100,000 shorebirds). 

Many of the areas favored by foraging shorebirds are also favored for the commercial aquaculture of clams.  Studies have been conducted by VIMS and CCB to identify core areas of migrant shorebird activity and assess potential conflicts between clam aquaculture and migrant shore birds to help guide policy revision of aquaculture leasing criteria.

Oyster Restoration

Restored Oyster Sanctuary Reef Sign
On Virginia Seaside Water Trail Route maps, oyster sanctuary reefs are depicted as point features (using GPS) although the actual reefs are two or three dimensional shell piles ranging in size from 0.5 acres to 1 acre.  Most restored oyster reefs on the Seaside were funded through the Oyster Heritage Program and the Virginia Seaside Heritage Program, both Virginia CZM Program initiatives, although other organizations (e.g., The Nature Conservancy) have also built reefs. Signs are now posted at all Virginia Oyster Heritage Program Sanctuary Reefs. The signs identify each reef by name and serve as a reminder that "No Oyster Harvesting" is allowed on these reefs. 


Clam Aquaculture

Clam Aquaculture
Clam farming on Virginia’s Eastern Shore currently represents a 30-40 million dollar industry.  Along the Virginia Seaside Water Trail, you may notice large areas within the shallows which have been permitted through the Commonwealth of Virginia for bottom aquaculture of shellfish (primarily hard clams).  Clam aquaculture sites are managed by the VMRC, a partner in the Virginia CZM Program, to better assess, plan, and guide aquaculture development in Virginia.  Clams which are being “grown out” to market size are usually in very organized beds marked by PVC stakes (see in the photograph below).  Current issues surrounding clam aquaculture focus on water quality and use conflicts (i.e., note the potential conflict between submerged aquatic vegetation and clam beds in above photograph).


Nationwide, invasive species are the number two threat to biological diversity, second only to the loss of species and habitat from development and urban sprawl.  On the Virginia Eastern Shore, one invasive wetland grass known as the common reed (Phragmites austrailis) can grow to 4 meters tall and quickly crowd out native marsh vegetation.  Approximately 2,024 acres of Phragmites currently exist on the seaside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, with the largest patch covering over 186 acres.  These areas were measured and mapped by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) by helicopter surveys and groundtruthing.  New control efforts being used by the DCR include a promising wetland herbicide called “Habitat” which can eliminate Phragmites with a single application.


Eelgrass Restoration

Crab in Eelgrass
Recent aerial photography (flown in 2005) shows a wonderful natural spread of eelgrasses from recent restoration sites funded by the Virginia CZM Program within Virginia’s Seaside Bays.  This spread of eelgrass has been one of the biggest success stories of the Virginia Seaside Heritage Program.  In the fall of 2003-2005, over 10 million eelgrass seeds were collected for restoration efforts on the Seaside by VIMS using hand collection techniques and a new mechanical harvester.  These seeds were dispersed over 60 acres of Seaside bottom using hand broadcasting, floating bags, and injection methods in areas of South Bay, Hog Island Bay, Cobb Bay, and Spider Crab Bay.  Learn more about the Virginia CZM Program's seagrass restoration efforts.

Land Conservation 

Land acquisition site on seaside of Eastern Shore
The surest way to guarantee long term protection of natural resources and coastal lands is through ownership or perpetual conservation easements.  Recently, the Virginia CZM Program has been working with TNC, DCR, DGIF, and USFWS to acquire properties on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore which are critically important as migratory songbird stopover habitat.  Read more about the Virginia CZM Program's land conservation efforts






The Seaside is a coastal wilderness that provides critical migratory and breeding habitat for birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. 

While paddling the Seaside, please protect wildlife and its habitat by observing the following guidelines:

Beach-nesting Birds

Waterbirds represent a broad suite of avian species that breed in close proximity to water.  Many are ground nesting species, which mean they lay eggs on bare or vegetated sand, while others build nests off the ground in grasses, low shrubs or trees. 

Waterbirds have to beat some pretty hefty odds in order to successfully produce young on Virginia’s highly dynamic beaches and marshes.  Storms and spring high tides often wash out a portion of the nests and/or drown flightless chicks.  Predators such as raccoons, foxes, gulls and crows can have a negative impact on breeding success as can humans and pets entering into or venturing too close to nesting areas. 

Try to avoid landing on barrier islands and marshes during the waterbird breeding season from April 1st through September 15th.   If you need to land, there are many things you can do to minimize disturbance to nesting birds during the breeding season on the barrier islands and in marsh areas.   

Barrier Island Beach Nesting Bird Brochure

"Life on the Beach Isn't Always Easy"

This brochure educates barrier island visitors on how to avoid disturbing these fascinating, but sensitive, beach nesting birds.
Download a copy of the brochure -
Side One (pdf, 72 dpi)
Side Two (pdf, 72 dpi)
If you would like to receive hardcopies, please contact the Virginia CZM Program .

Seaside Barrier Islands:

Please heed the following rules when visiting the barrier islands during the breeding season. 

  • Do not linger unnecessarily.

  • Remain as close to the water’s edge as possible.
  • Avoid wandering over dry beach or vegetated areas to avoid injuring chicks or eggs.
  • Avoid wet mudflats where young chicks and adults actively feed.
  • Respect all nesting areas that are posted with bird closure signs by staying out.
  • Always pay attention to the birds.  If you are too close they will vocalize, take flight, dive bomb and/or exhibit defensive behaviors such as broken wing displays to lure you away from nests or hidden chicks.
  • Avoid making loud noises or engaging in any disruptive activities (e.g., kite flying) and do not linger in or near bird nesting areas unnecessarily.
  • Avoid visits to beaches during the hottest part of the day, and during cool (less than 70° F) and/or inclement weather.  If nesting birds are startled off their nests during hot, sunny days, the eggs can actually bake in the sun and heat.
  • Do not leave trash or food on the beach.  Remember to carry out what you bring in!
  • Avoid paddling too close to barrier island shorelines.  If birds on the shore take flight upon your approach, steer away from the area and remain as close to the main channel as possible.
  • Keep pets at home (pets are not allowed on any TNC owned islands).
  • Overnight camping and campfires are not permitted on any of the ocean-facing barrier islands.
  • Go to the Seaside Land Ownership and Regulations page for more details on barrier island visitation policies and take the time to call the appropriate agency to get additional information on public use policies specific to the areas you plan on visiting.

Seaside Marshes and Marsh Islands:

Try to avoid landing on marsh shorelines or islands during the breeding season.  Marshes are hot and buggy, difficult to traverse, and extremely sensitive to human disturbance.  If you do have to land on a marsh shoreline, please heed the following tips:

  • Remain close to the water’s edge at all times and do not linger in the area unnecessarily.
  • Avoid walking across marsh vegetation. 
  • Always tread carefully when walking on sandy or shelly marsh shorelines where birds may be nesting as you may accidentally step on well-camouflaged nests.
  • Adult solitary marsh nesters will usually flush from well-hidden nests laid on sand, shell piles, or in the grass.  When you see adult birds flush, move away from the area as quickly and quietly as possible.
  • Do not enter nesting colonies (i.e., areas with concentrations of birds). 
  • Always pay attention to the birds; they will let you know when you are too close by taking flight, dive-bombing, and/or exhibiting defensive behaviors.
  • Avoid making loud noises or engaging in any disruptive activities.
  • Avoid visits to marshes during the hottest part of the day, and during cool (less than 70° F) and/or inclement weather.
  • Do not leave trash or food in the marsh.  Remember to carry out what you bring in!

Avoid paddling too close to marsh shorelines.  If birds in the marsh take flight upon your approach, steer away from the area and remain as close to the main channel as possible.

Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

  • All sea turtles, manatees and several large whales that occur in Virginia are protected under the Endangered Species Act. 

  • Dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, and manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

  • Enjoy watching marine animals from a distance.  Do not approach or attempt to touch or feed them.  It is a violation of federal law.

Occurrences of manatees in Virginia’s coastal waters have been increasing in recent years.  Reports of manatee sightings by the public provide important information on the distribution, length of stay, and number of individuals that inhabit state waters during the summer months.  If you are fortunate enough to see one, report your observations to the proper authorities as soon as possible.  Please also provide a detailed description of where and when you encountered the manatee, any unusual markings or scars seen on the animal, and an estimate of its length.

How to report sea turtle and marine mammal strandings:

Every year, several hundred sea turtles and marine mammals (dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals and manatees) wash ashore or strand on the Eastern Shore’s beaches, marshes and islands.  An occasional live debilitated sea turtle or marine mammal may be encountered in these areas as well. 

Though tragic, strandings represent one of the few means available for investigating the cause of death and gathering important life history information on a group of marine species that are difficult to study in the wild. 

If you encounter a sea turtle or marine mammal stranding either in the marsh, on a beach, or in the water, call the number provided below and be prepared to offer specifics on the species (if known), location, size, and condition (alive or dead) of the animal.  Please also provide the telephone number of a person who can be called for additional information. 

If you come upon a sick or live, but debilitated injured live animal, do not push it back into the water or attempt to handle it without first contacting stranding response personnel for guidance.

(Please note that dead sea turtles marked with spray paint have already been examined by a member of the stranding response team and do not need to be reported again.)

Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Stranding Program

757-385-7575 or 24-hour pager at 757-385-7576.

Remember to Leave No Trace...

Let the Shore leave its mark on you but do not leave your mark on the Shore!

Be a well educated ecotourist!

Visit the Leave No Trace website before your trip for more ideas on treading softly -


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

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

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

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