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Virginia CZM Program: 2016 Coastal Grant Project Description and Final Summary

Project Task:VA CZM logo



Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation

Project Title:

Virginia Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Project Description:

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 (average 99/year from 2003-2012, 427 in 2013, 95 in 2014, 101 in 2015) and sea turtle strandings (average 224/year from 2005-2014, 295 in 2015) throughout the tidal waters and shorelines along the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Virginia has a rich diversity of marine mammal and sea turtle species. There are 32 marine mammal species and five sea turtle species in the state’s stranding records. During 2013, a historic number of marine mammal strandings (427 in a single year) occurred in Virginia as a result of a bottlenose dolphin unusual mortality event (UME) caused by a cetacean morbillivirus. The strandings were part of the largest cetacean mortality event ever recorded. The UME continued throughout 2014 and into 2015, though associated dolphin mortalities were primarily focused south of the mid-Atlantic region. Virginia has experienced a more normal overall level of marine mamal strandings since 2013, however 2015 included the third highest annual total of bottlenose dolphin strandings (85) ever recorded in the state. 2015 also included an increase in live sea turtle strandings, with the majority of the strandings associated with incidental capture by hook and line fishers. 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 80 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:

Alexander Costidis, 757.385.6482,  

Project Status:

1/1/17 - 12/31/17; Project Completed  

Final Product:

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

Project Summary:

The Virginia Aquarium 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. VAQS reported 377 Virginia strandings in 2017, including 94 marine mammals and 283 sea turtles. In comparison, 80 marine mammal and 263 sea turtle strandings were recorded in 2016.

In 2017, stranding records for marine mammals remained at “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. A significant percentage of Virginia marine mammal mortalities continue to be related to human activities that lead to pollution, vessel strikes, and interactions with fishing gear. 2017 was noteworthy because of the strandings of bottlenose dolphin and large whales, as well as live strandings of a fin whale and minke whale. Bottlenose dolphin stranding numbers (67) were at an average level for Virginia, though still representing a significant level of mortality. 2017 was a record year for large whale strandings (11). There were eight humpback whale strandings, including one encounter with gillnet gear off Cape Henry in Virginia Beach. Of the humpback strandings where cause of death could be determined, all three died as a result of vessel strikes. The live fin whale was a thin, young female that was severely compromised by an infestation of parasites that prevented normal kidney function. The live minke whale stranded on a sandbar in the Chesapeake Bay and was in very poor condition. After consultation with NOAA Fisheries and the VAQS veterinarian, the minke whale was humanely euthanized.

Sea turtles stranded in high numbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay and ocean coastal regions of Virginia during 2017. VAQS continued to receive dozens of reports of sea turtles that were incidentally hooked by fishers. Improved outreach to fishing piers through the VAQS Virginia Pier Partner Program continues to enhance recovery and rehabilitation of hooked turtles. Vessel strikes, fishery interactions, and cold-stunning continue to be the most commonly identified causes associated with sea turtle strandings.

VAQS recorded many live strandings (92) in Virginia in 2017. The stranding response team continued the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the VAQS Stranding Center. During the year, 43 sea turtles were successfully released following rehabilitation and 27 were disentangled and released from fishing gear. There were 20 sea turtles that remained in rehabilitation at the end of the year.

Virginia marine mammal and sea turtle stranding levels continued at very high levels in 2017. Continued monitoring and reporting of these trends in strandings of protected species will be priorities for the Virginia stranding network in 2018. VAQS will continue its efforts on behalf of sea turtles and marine mammals in the mid-Atlantic region and design plans have been formalized for a new marine animal conservation center scheduled to open in 2020. A complete listing and discussion of 2017 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 2018-01. 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 or

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

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