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Virginia CZM Program: 2011 Coastal Grant Project Description and Final Summary

Project Task:VA CZM logo



Virginia Beach/Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center

Project Title:

Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Response

Project Description as Proposed:

The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation’s Stranding Response Program (VAQS) is permitted by the NOAA Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the state to manage the marine mammal and sea turtle stranding networks in Virginia. The Aquarium’s mission is to “inspire conservation of the marine environment through education, research and sustainable practices.” With assistance from this state grant, VAQS maintains a statewide stranding network and responds to marine mammal strandings (106/year since 2001) and sea turtle strandings (292/year since 2001) throughout the tidal waters and shorelines along the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Stranding response includes carcass recovery, external/internal examination, photo/video documentation, human interaction analysis, stomach contents analysis, tissue sampling, carcass disposal, and database management. Live animal strandings, especially sea turtles and some seals, are provided with emergency medical care and rehabilitated for return to the natural environment. Animals that are successfully rehabilitated but unable to be returned to the wild are placed with professionally managed zoological parks or aquariums. Nonreleasable animals are placed with the guidance of the agency with authority – either NMFS, USFWS or both. The VAQS staff recruits, trains and coordinates a volunteer stranding team with approximately 65 members. Additionally, stranding response cooperators within the state network include state and federal parks staff, game wardens and biologists, military base personnel, U.S. Coast Guard, VMRC, VDGIF, life guards and law enforcement officers. Trainings are conducted throughout the year with emphasis on the natural history and stranding response requirements of sea turtles and marine mammals. The VAQS maintains the state marine mammal and sea turtle stranding databases and submits reports to NMFS and other agencies. Stranding data is stored in VAQS databases and reported to NMFS national databases. The VAQS views each stranding event as an opportunity for education about the natural history,threats and conservation needs of Virginia's sea turtle and marine mammal species. This message is presented through exhibits and outreach programs, at schools, to teachers, to groups such as girl and boy scouts, to civic organizations and at conferences and special events. Through these many efforts, information about the status of these protected species in Virginia is presented to the public and to the agencies and individuals responsible for their management and conservation.

Federal Funding: 


Project Contact:

W. Mark Swingle - 757.437.6022;

Project Status:

1/1/2011 - 12/31/2012; Project Completed

Final Product Received:

Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response 2012 Grant Report (pdf)

Project Summary Provided by Grantee:

The Virginia Aquarium Foundation Stranding Response Program (VAQS) and Virginia stranding network collect data critical for the long-term monitoring of sea turtle and marine mammal populations. Strandings provide information on life histories and health of these species from Virginia waters. Stranded animals often provide the only sources of this scientific information for many species. VAQS reported 307 Virginia strandings in 2012, including marine mammals (75) and sea turtles (232). In comparison, 90 marine mammals and 173 sea turtle strandings were recorded in 2011. Stranding records for marine mammals, particularly bottlenose dolphin (64), remain high and a significant percentage of the mortalities are related to human activities such as pollution, vessel strikes, and interactions with fishing gear. 2012 was noteworthy because of the low number of marine mammal strandings – the lowest number in more than 12 years. Large whales were abundant in Virginia waters during the winter and there were several instances of adverse human interactions. Several humpback whales were entangled in recreational fishing gear, a dead fin whale stranded in Norfolk with evidence of a ship strike, and live humpback whale stranded and died on Wallops Island with signs of injuries from a ship’s propeller. Sea turtles stranded in very high numbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay and ocean coastal regions of Virginia during the period 2001-2004 (average of 349 per year). 2011 stranding numbers were the lowest recorded in more than 10 years, however 2012 saw a significant increase in sea turtle strandings. There have been management efforts to reduce sea turtle mortalities, primarily with regard to dredge and fishery interactions, however there is still much work to be done to understand the many factors contributing to sea turtle mortalities in Virginia. Vessel strikes (37 = 16%) continue to be the most commonly identified human interactions associated with sea turtle strandings.

VAQS attended to many live strandings (31) in 2012: 25 from VA; two from New Jersey; and four from MA. The stranding response team continued the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the VAQS Marine Animal Care Center. These efforts contributed to the successful rehabilitation and release of 12 sea turtles. In addition, there were 13 sea turtles that remained in rehabilitation at the end of the year. VAQS will continue its efforts on behalf of live stranded sea turtles and marine mammals in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region and is on track to develop a larger and better-equipped marine animal care facility to open in the next five years.

Virginia marine mammal and sea turtle strandings remain at some of the highest levels per mile of coastline in the country. Continued monitoring and reporting of these trends in strandings of protected species will be priorities for the Virginia stranding network in 2013. A complete listing and discussion of 2012 stranding data and VAQS professional and education activities can be found in the final grant report to the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, VAQF Scientific Report 2013-01. Further information and a copy of the report can be found at or by contacting VAQS at

Disclaimer: This project summary provides the federal dollars initially awarded to the grantee. Due to underexpenditure or reprogramming of grant funds, this figure may change. For more information on the allocation of coastal grant funds, please contact Laura McKay, Virginia Coastal Program Manager, at 804.698.4323 or email:

A more detailed Scope of Work for this project is available. Please direct your request for a copy to 

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

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