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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 Foundation

Project Title:

Offshore Energy Planning: Documenting Location of Megafauna off Virginia's Coast

Project Description as Proposed:

This project will collect aerial survey data on the location of large whales off the coast of Virginia in an approximately 10,000 km2 area, the center of which is the Virginia Wind Energy Area. A GIS data layer will be created and uploaded to the MARCO Mapping and Planning Portal in order to facilitate creation of an ecosystem-based marine spatial plan for Virginia that minimizes human use impacts to key biological resources and habitats. This data is critical to Virginia’s Ocean Resources Section 309 strategy with its planned outcome of a Virginia Marine Spatial Plan that can be incorporated into a Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Plan.

The goal of this project is to continue to collect important data on the presence, density and seasonality of endangered large whale species, especially critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), in the vicinity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area (WEA) designated by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  



Project Contact:

Susan Barco, 757.385.6476;  
William McLellan, 910.962.7266; 

Project Status:

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

Final Product Received:

Documenting Whale Migration off Virginia's Coast for Use in Marine Spatial Planning: Aerial Surveys in the Proximity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area (VA WEA) (pdf) 

Project Summary Provided by Grantee:

We conducted nine surveys during May, June, and September - December. A total of 45 track lines (4830.2 km) were flown over 36.6 hours and covered the approximately 10,000 km² Virginia Wind Energy survey area (VA WEA) during the reporting period. 

A total of 55 sightings of 553 cetaceans were encountered while on effort (i.e. on a designated trackline and actively surveying) during the 9 days of aerial surveys in the study area.  Four species of cetaceans were photo-documented, including bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

A total of 183 sightings of 340 sea turtles were recorded during the survey period.  Ninety-five percent of the turtle sightings (n=174) were identified as loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). There were nine sightings of 11 turtles where species identification could not be established with 100% certainty, and they are listed as “unidentified turtle”.

One sighting of two ocean sunfish (Mola mola) was recorded in September. The conservation status of this species has not been evaluated. There were seven sightings of individual manta rays (Manta birostris) in June and September. There were 24 sightings of 3,320 cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus).

A total of 105 large vessels (e.g. tankers, car carriers, container, and naval vessels) were observed in the survey area. A total of 69 individual small vessels (e.g. recreational vessels- sail, parasail, sport fishing boats) were observed within the study period.

Additional surveys and expansion of the survey area to include offshore waters along the continental slope are highly advised.  Approximately a 20 mile extension of the current transect lines would provide coverage of the continental slope where marine mammal species diversity has been documented (McAlarney et al. 2013) to be higher along the continental shelf in pelagic waters just south of the VA WE survey area (Cape Hatteras, NC north to southern VA). Research suggests that offshore deep diving species such as beaked whales and blue whales which have been documented in the mid-Atlantic along the continental shelf are particularly sensitive to anthropogenic noise (Goldbogen, 2013, DeRuiter et al. 2013, Stimpert et al. 2014). Additional surveys would provide a sound baseline, fill temporal and spatial gaps, and could provide coverage of environmental phenomena.  Expanding the survey area would provide documentation of species that would likely be impacted by offshore oil and gas leasing, increased shipping, and renewable energy development in the vicinity of the VA WEA.

Continued dedicated survey effort and monitoring over time can provide: 1) sufficient data for density estimates, 2) seasonal patterns of species distribution, 2) changes in distribution and abundance associated with energy development, and 4) the ability to identify preferred and critical habitat. Other opportunistic sightings, especially of large shipping vessels simultaneously collected during surveys can provide accessory human use data that can be incorporated into ecological models and ultimately used to guide ocean planning.

This project has begun to cover gaps in coverage, and we will continue to pursue support for surveys until the area has been surveyed in all seasons over the course of several years. In addition to the baseline data that are being currently being collected, initiation of a multi-platform (i.e. aerial, vessel, and acoustic) monitoring plan in the vicinity of the proposed offshore wind energy area is important to consider for the major development phases (i.e. construction, operation, maintenance, and eventual decommissioning).  Possible changes in patterns of distribution and use of this area by endangered marine species, especially marine mammals and sea turtles, is critical to document especially as oil and gas exploration and leasing in the mid-Atlantic is opened in the near future ( 

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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