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

Project Task:VA CZM logo



Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Project Title:

Sea Turtles and Fishing Piers – Mitigating Hook-and-line Interactions

Project Description:

Sea turtles in Virginia face many threats to their survival, including serious injury and mortality from entanglement in commercial fishing gear, vessel strikes from both commercial and recreational vessels, and entanglement and ingestion of recreational hook and line gear and marine debris. While federal regulations address many concerns posed by commercial fishing, interactions with the recreational hook-and-line fisheries remains largely unreported and/or unaddressed.  The Federal Loggerhead Recovery Plan identifies the reduction of hook and line interactions as a high priority action. In recent years, reported interactions between recreational fishermen and sea turtles in Virginia have been increasing dramatically. From 2009-2012, an average of 2.5 “hooked” sea turtles were reported per season. Since then, the numbers of these interactions, as well as the number of turtles admitted into rehab per season, have been increasing substantially. In 2015 alone, a total of 47 sea turtles were incidentally taken by the hook and line fishery, of which 35 underwent some level of rehabilitation prior to being released.

The goal of this project is to develop realistic conservation, mitigation and/or regulatory measures that minimize the impact of recreational hook and line fishing on sea turtles in Virginia. Because most of the hook-and-line interactions documented in Virginia occurred on piers, we will focus our efforts on pier fishers. The VDGIF will partner with the Virginia Aquarium to complete this work.  We propose three objectives to achieve our goal. First, we will build on the pilot study efforts of the Virginia Pier Partner Program to educate the recreational pier fishing community to increase reporting of hooked sea turtles and encourage proper response to these interactions. Second, we will expand collection and analysis of data gathered from piers and pier-caught sea turtles to better understand the nature of these interactions for mitigation. Third, we will test technology that will allow us to detect ingested hooks without veterinary assistance thus improving response to hooked sea turtles and allowing for rapid release of otherwise healthy turtles.

Target species include:
1. The Northwest Atlantic Ocean loggerhead sea turtle Distinct Population Segment (DPS).
2. Kemp’s ridley sea turtle
3. Green sea turtle

This project will sustain and expand the Virginia Pier Partner Program, continue to support and improve diagnostic practices for hooked sea turtles, and use the data collected from stranding and outreach efforts to develop management and mitigation recommendations for turtles caught on recreational hook-and-line gear in Virginia. Due to the rising prevalence of reported hooked turtles in Virginia and throughout southeastern U.S., continuing to investigate this problem will be valuable not only in the Commonwealth, but throughout the species’ US range. The comprehensive analyses of the survey data will provide VDGIF, VMRC and USFWS with the necessary information to either develop effective outreach materials, BMPs and/or regulations for the hook-and-line fishery to reduce the incidental capture of turtles.

These efforts address recovery objectives in the Loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley federal recovery plans as well as conservation actions in the draft Virginia/Maryland Sea Turtle Conservation Plan (see methods section below) which will serve as a companion document to Virginia’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan. This project also will help address the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Action Plan’s “Healthy Ocean Ecosystem” goal.  In the recently released NOAA Fisheries Regional Recreational Fisheries Action Agenda, Greater Atlantic Region, this proposal addresses objective 3: projects 2 and 3.

Federal Funding:


Project Contact:

Becky Gwynn, 804.829.6720,

Project Status:

10/1/16 - 3/31/18; Project Completed

Final Product:

Sea Turtles & Fishing Piers in Virginia: Mitigating Hook & Line Interactions (PDF) 

Project Summary:

Sea turtles in Virginia face many threats to their survival, including serious injury and death from becoming tangled in commercial fishing gear, struck by commercial and recreational vessels, encounters with dredge operations, and ingesting recreational hook and line gear and marine debris. Recreational fishing from piers is from where most reports of hooked sea turtles come.  In 2013, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (VAQS) received 18 reports of sea turtles hooked by recreational anglers, a significant increase over previous years. In response to this increase, the Virginia Pier Partner Program was initiated in 2014 as a pilot study to inform pier anglers about the importance of responsibly reporting and handling hooked sea turtles. As of 2017, the Virginia Pier Partner Program included seven “Pier Partners,” local piers that support the program’s mission to document as many hooked turtles as possible and safely retrieve those animals for responsible de-hooking and evaluation. The piers agreed to display program signage instructing anglers on how to respond to hooked turtles, equipment, including lift nets, for carefully landing turtles, and rescue boxes to contain animals until they were picked up by VAQS responders. The goal of this project was to identify and develop ways to minimize the impacts of recreational hook-and-line fishing on sea turtles in Virginia. 

As a result of the project, the recreational pier fishing community learned more about the importance of timely and increased reporting of hooked sea turtles.  The Virginia Aquarium’s Pier Partners were also provided with tools and training to respond more appropriately to hooked sea turtles.  Data were collected from surveys with Pier Partner participants and interviews with anglers who caught sea turtles.  A database was also developed that captured information about all of the hooks recovered from turtles. The VAQS also streamlined responses to hooked turtles by developing more efficient response protocols and testing technologies that can allow detection of ingested hooks without veterinary assistance, which allows for a much more rapid release of otherwise healthy turtles.

The data reported for this project represent some of the first studies to understand better the issues surrounding interactions between the recreational hook and line fishery and sea turtles. Positive outcomes of the project have included the success of the Virginia Aquarium’s Pier Partner Program and continually improving relationships with pier owners and recreational anglers.  Information collected on sea turtle blood chemistry and body condition influence how VAQS interprets health for all admitted sea turtles. Promising metal detector trials suggest that these tools may be used as an important means of field assessment, especially for smaller turtles, which can facilitate immediate field release of otherwise healthy animals. Unfortunately, many aspects of sea turtle interactions with hook and line gear are difficult to control and therefore difficult to mitigate. There has been little to no regulatory control outside of licensing and catch limits. Outreach and voluntary behavioral changes are the most likely measures to be accepted by this community. Studies to develop and test improvements in hook removal techniques are needed, along with other aspects of veterinary care. Studies on turtle interaction with recreational hook and line fishing that mimic commercial studies in the longline fishery and that address both habituation and use of deterrents are needed. Next steps include developing and implementing a pilot recreational angler reporting system; pursuing stable funding for a permanent response, recovery and rehabilitation program for hooked sea turtles; and developing and implementing best management practices for the pier fishery to minimize both non-lethal and lethal takes of sea turtles by pier anglers. These efforts will require collaboration of VAQS, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. 

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

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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