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Virginia CZM Program: 2017 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 Commonwealth of Virginia to manage the state’s marine mammal and sea turtle stranding networks. The Aquarium’s mission is to “inspire conservation of the marine environment through education, research and sustainable practices.”

With assistance from this grant from the Coastal Zone Management Program, VAQS maintains a statewide stranding network and responds to marine mammal strandings (average 99/year from 2003-2012, 427 in 2013, average 92 from 2014-2016) and sea turtle strandings (average 232/year from 2006-2015, 263 in 2016) 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. 2015-2016 also included increases 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 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 compiled and stored by VAQS 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, vessel strikes and disease) 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 scientific conferences, workshops, trainings 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:

1/1/2018 - 12/31/2018; Project Completed

Final Product:

Virginia Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding Network 2018 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 382 Virginia strandings in 2018, including 108 marine mammals and 274 sea turtles. In comparison, 94 marine mammal and 283 sea turtle strandings were recorded in 2017.
In 2018, overall stranding records for marine mammals remained at “normal” levels compared to historic numbers documented in 2013 when 382 bottlenose dolphins stranded in Virginia as the result of a coast-wide Unusual Mortality Event (UME). 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. 2018 was noteworthy because of the continued strandings of bottlenose dolphin (76) and large whales (8), including the entanglement of a humpback whale and the entanglement related death of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Following the record year of 2017 when 11 strandings occurred, 2018 became the second highest year on record for large whale strandings in Virginia. The live humpback whale was reported as entangled in gill net but apparently was able to free itself prior to arrival of USCG authorities. The right whale case involved an extensive stranding response that resulted in documentation of chronic entanglement injuries that were later attributed to gear from the Canadian snow crab fishery. This case helped federal investigators link to several other right whale entanglement cases. There were seven seal strandings during the year. One harbor seal was successfully rehabilitated and released. One gray seal that died tested positive for phocine distemper virus and was recorded as part of a Pinniped UME declared in 2018.
Sea turtles stranded in high numbers in the lower Chesapeake Bay and ocean coastal regions of Virginia during 2018. 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 (90) in Virginia in 2018. The stranding response team continued the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the VAQS Stranding Center. During the year, 45 sea turtles that stranded in 2018 were successfully released following rehabilitation, 19 animals that stranded in 2017 were released, and 17 sea turtles were disentangled and released from fishing gear. There were 11 sea turtles that remained in rehabilitation at the end of the year.
Virginia marine mammal and sea turtle stranding levels remained at very high levels in 2018. Continued monitoring and reporting of these trends in strandings of protected species will be priorities for the Virginia stranding network in 2019. VAQS will continue its efforts on behalf of sea turtles and marine mammals in the mid-Atlantic region and the Aquarium’s new Darden Marine Animal Conservation Center is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020. A complete listing and discussion of 2018 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 2019-01. 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

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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