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Virginia CZM Program: 2013 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 (99/year from 2003-2012) and sea turtle strandings (262/year from 2003-2012) 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 (such as marine debris ingestion, entanglements and vessel strikes) 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:

1/1/2014 - 12/31/2014; Project Completed 

Final Product Received:

Virginia Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Network Final 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 343 VA strandings in 2014, including 95 marine mammals and 248 sea turtles. In comparison, 427 marine mammal and 263 sea turtle strandings were recorded in 2013. In 2014, stranding records for marine mammals returned to more “normal” levels compared to the historic numbers documented in 2013 when 382 bottlenose dolphins stranded in Virginia as the result of a coast-wide Unusual Mortality Event (UME) caused by cetacean morbillivirus. The UME eventually spread as far south as FL and continues to be actively monitored. In addition to the UME, a significant percentage of VA marine mammal mortalities continue to be related to human activities that lead to pollution, vessel strikes, and interactions with fishing gear. 2014 was noteworthy because of the strandings of three large whale species, a fin whale, sei whale and minke whale. The fin whale stranded on an island in Pocomoke Sound near the VA/MD border. The VA Marine Resources Commission, VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History assisted in the response and examination. Though findings were not conclusive, there was evidence of a kidney infection associated with parasites. The sei whale was initially observed swimming in the Elizabeth River and died there five days later. Upon necropsy, it was discovered that the animal had suffered a vessel strike and also had ingested a large, sharp-edged piece of plastic (fragment from a DVD case) that had caused severe damage to the stomach and probably prevented it from eating. The minke whale stranded on Christmas eve in Virginia Beach. The young whale had evidence of a recent entanglement and a vessel strike.

Sea turtles stranded in high numbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay and ocean coastal regions of VA during 2014. VAQS received reports of 25 sea turtles that were incidentally hooked by fishers. Improved outreach to fishing piers is beginning to enhance recovery and rehabilitation of hooked turtles. There have been management efforts to reduce sea turtle mortalities, primarily with regard to dredge and fishery interactions. Vessel strikes and fishery interactions continue to be the most commonly identified human interactions associated with sea turtle strandings.
VAQS attended to many live strandings (51) in 2014: 41 from VA and 10 from MA. The stranding response team continued the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the VAQS Marine Animal Care Center. During the year, 26 sea turtles were successfully released following rehabilitation and nine were disentangled from fishing gear. There were 15 sea turtles that remained in rehabilitation at the end of the year.
VA marine mammal and sea turtle strandings remained at high levels in 2014. Continued monitoring and reporting of these trends in strandings of protected species will be priorities for the VA stranding network in 2015. VAQS will continue its efforts on behalf of sea turtles and marine mammals in the mid-Atlantic region and plans to open a new marine animal conservation center in the next five years. A complete listing and discussion of 2014 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 2015-01. 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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