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Virginia CZM Program: 2014 Coastal Grant Project Description and Final Summary

Project Task:CZM logo



Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation

Project Title:

Offshore Energy Planning: Continued Documentation of Megafauna off Virginia’s Coast Using Aerial Survey 

Project Description as Proposed:

This project will collect aerial survey data on the location of large whales and other marine species off the coast of Virginia in an approximately 10,000 kilometer squared 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. These data are 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 baseline data on the presence, distribution 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 (BOEM). Flights will target times when large whales are suspected to be in the area in order to document distribution and compliment passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) efforts being supported by BOEM.

In addition to large whales, observers will document other protected marine species such as small cetaceans, sea turtles and sharks, as well as the size and location of observed vessels. These data will add to aerial survey data already collected on the presence of animals in the vicinity of the wind energy area and will provide baseline data on species and vessel traffic prior to WEA development. The data will provide fundamental information for future environmental monitoring efforts during development, installation and operation of turbines in order to assess possible impacts (changes in presence, distribution, behavior) to large whales, smaller cetaceans, and sea turtles, in the proximity of the WEA.

The budget allows for 80 hours of surveys which is equivalent to ten, eight hour survey days. We will attempt to fly at least six days in Dec, Jan and Feb since previous aerial survey projects have not been able to fly in these months due to weather, and because vessel surveys and commercial whale watch observations indicate animals are present in those months. We will compare aerial survey data gaps and PAM analysis to determine what other times should be covered with remaining funds.

Federal Funding:


Project Contact:

Susan Barco, 757.385.6476;  

Project Status:

11/15/14 - 3/31/16; Project Completed

Final Product Received:

Offshore Energy Planning for Marine Protected Species off of Virginia's Coast: A Synthesis of Aerial Surveys in the Proximity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area from 2012 - 2015 (PDF)

Project Summary Provided by Grantee:

In November of 2012, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation Research and Conservation Division (VAQF) in collaboration with the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) began aerial surveys off the coast of Virginia to document large whale migration in the vicinity of the Virginia Wind Energy Area (VA WEA). The Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program at the Department of Environmental Quality of the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support collection of marine protected species occurrence to inform offshore energy development and planning. These data have been collected for the purposes of establishing baseline data on large whale occurrence and seasonal presence to be integrated into mid-Atlantic ocean planning. This report represents a synthesis of three separate aerial survey projects supported by CZM grants awarded to VAQF.

We flew 226 transect lines totaling 20,782.5 km from November 2012 through November 2015. We conducted aerial surveys during all months except for July, although effort was not consistent each month among years. The year 2014 had the highest level of survey effort (8185.1 km) while 2012 had the least (760.1 km). Seasonally, the highest amount of survey effort was in the spring (8848.9 km) and the lowest effort was in the summer (3143.6 km).      

Large whales, including humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), and North Atlantic right (Eubalaena glacialis; NARW)  whales were seasonally present in the survey area between November and April and distribution within the survey area varied by species in distance from shore, distance from the VA WEA, and depth at the sighting location. Fin whales were distributed further offshore of the WEA and right whales were seen within VA WEA boundary. Sighting rates (sightings/100 km], which allowed us to correct for effort during the years of the survey, varied by species. Humpback and right whale sighting rates were highest in January and fin whales sighting rates highest in April. For minke whales, the least commonly sighted large whale, the highest sighting rate was in March.

The only other cetaceans observed in the WEA were, bottlenose, common and spotted dolphins. The most commonly sighted and broadly distributed delphinid species was the bottlenose dolphin, which was sighted in all months surveyed except for February and March, with highest sighting rates in April through June. Highest sighting rates for common dolphins were in January and March. Atlantic spotted dolphins were only documented in May and June and the higher sighting rate was in June.

Ninety-four percent of all turtle sightings (n=564 of 602) were loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). There were also ten sightings of single leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and 32 sightings of single hard-shelled turtles where species identification could not be established and are listed as “unidentified turtle.” Loggerhead sea turtles were primarily sighted in the spring and summer months, but there were thirty-three fall and five winter sightings. The winter sightings were near the offshore ends of the transect lines closest to warmer gulf stream waters. Leatherback sea turtles were sighted exclusively in summer.

In addition to cetaceans and sea turtles, other pelagic marine vertebrates, such as ocean sunfish (Mola mola), basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), and unidentified sharks were observed. Commercial, military, and recreational vessels were also encountered in the survey area. These vessels were categorized as either (1) “large shipping vessels” (e.g. commercial cargo, cruise ship, larger military vessels), and (2) “other vessels” (e.g. commercial, charter, recreational fishing and other recreational vessels such as sailboats or parasail boats). Vessels were sighted each month surveyed although the highest sighting rate of large vessels was in November and of small vessels was in January and September.


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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