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Virginia CZM Program: 2012 Coastal Grant Project Description and Final Summary

Project Task:VA CZM logo



Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center 

Project Title:

Virginia Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Network 

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 (103/year since 2002) and sea turtle strandings (271/year since 2002) 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:

Mark Swingle; 757.385.0326,

Project Status:

1/1/2013 - 12/31/2013; Project Completed 

Final Product Received:

Virginia Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Network 2013 Grant Report (PDF) 

Project Summary Provided by Grantee:

The Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program (VAQS) and VA 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 VA waters. VAQS reported 690 VA strandings in 2013, including marine mammals (427) and sea turtles (263). In comparison, 75 marine mammal and 232 sea turtle strandings were recorded in 2012. Stranding records for marine mammals were at historic levels, including 382 bottlenose dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins were the primary species affected by an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) that started in July in the mid-Atlantic region and eventually spread as far south as FL. Thanks in part to stranding response and sampling conducted in VA, the primary cause of the UME was identified in August as a cetacean morbillivirus that was spreading through the dolphin population. The UME was still active at the end of December, though dolphin mortalities in VA had all but ceased. High levels of dolphin mortality associated with the UME continued in coastal regions from NC through northern FL as 2013 came to an end. Though the UME accounted for the vast majority of VA marine mammal strandings, a significant percentage of mortalities continue to be related to human activities that lead to pollution, vessel strikes, and interactions with fishing gear. 2013 was noteworthy because of the record number of marine mammal strandings – the highest in recorded history for the state. Large whales were again abundant in VA waters during the winter and there were several instances of adverse human interactions. Several humpback whales stranded during the year, one with evidence of a ship strike and the other potentially affected by the UME morbillivirus. There was also a new species added to the VA marine mammal database when three pygmy killer whales stranded during November. This rare species attracted attention from scientists at the Smithsonian where the animals were sent for further study. Sea turtles stranded in very high numbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay and ocean coastal regions of VA during the period 2001-2004 (average of 349 per year). 2011 stranding numbers were the lowest recorded in more than 10 years, however 2012 and 2013 saw significant increases in sea turtle strandings. There have been management efforts to reduce sea turtle mortalities, primarily with regard to dredge and fishery interactions. Vessel strikes and fishery interactions, including turtles hooked by recreational fishers, continue to be the most commonly identified human interactions associated with sea turtle strandings.

VAQS attended to many live strandings (78) in 2013: 72 from VA, one from NC, one from NJ, and four from MA. The stranding response team continued the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the VAQS Marine Animal Care Center. During the year, 21 sea turtles were successfully rehabilitated and released and 13 were disentangled from fishing gear. There were nine 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 VA 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.

VA marine mammal and sea turtle strandings were at historic levels in 2013. Continued monitoring and reporting of these trends in strandings of protected species will be priorities for the VA stranding network in 2014. A complete listing and discussion of 2013 stranding data and VAQS professional and education activities can be found in the final grant report to the VA Coastal Zone Management Program, VAQF Scientific Report 2014-02. Further information and a copy of the report
can be found at or by contacting VAQS at

: 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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