Access the North Atlantic Coast Ecoregional Assessment
The Nature Conservancy's Massachusetts Chapter
The Ocean and Coast
Massachusetts has 1,519 miles of coastline, 192 miles of open ocean frontage, and 1.6 million acres of intertidal and subtidal lands (collectively called tidelands) extending three nautical miles offshore, and including all of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays. Along the coast are 681 mapped barrier beaches with a total area over 18,750 acres, 46,964 acres of salt marsh, and 41,514 acres of tidal flats.
Marine Conservation Agreements
Several law, policy, and spatial data analyses related to private conservation of tidelands in Massachusetts have been undertaken since 2005 (for a summary and the reports, see the Resources Box). While the analyses did not find existing conservation leasing efforts in the state, conservation ownership and restoration below the high tide line were documented or have since been initiated. Several important additional findings were made:
- The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is constitutionally and statutorily mandated to regulate and manage tidelands and their associated natural resources for the public’s benefit.
- Most intertidal lands are privately owned, while most submerged lands are publicly owned.
- Trust-protected public rights established under the Public Trust Doctrine apply to tidelands regardless of ownership status. These public rights may well impede or complicate tidelands conservation efforts undertaken by private organizations, although for other types of private activities on tidelands (e.g., marinas) the trust-protected rights have been extinguished or subordinated to allow the proposed tidelands project to proceed.
- Trust-protected public rights established under both the Public Trust Doctrine and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are aimed in part at ensuring that Commonwealth citizens have “a healthy and productive environment.” These mandates might support tidelands conservation and restoration work that creates a “healthy and productive environment.”
- Acquisition of existing private tidelands—either through fee-simple ownership, perpetual conservation restrictions, or long-term leasing arrangements—for conservation purposes is possible.
- Although tenuous because conservation projects may not involve “structures” or “fill” subject to Chapter 91’s statutory jurisdiction, it appears that the concept of Chapter 91 licensing of conservation projects, especially active conservation projects with some work or activity on the affected tidelands, could be legally viable—given MassDEP’s cooperation and support.
Whether organizations pursue licensing or ownership opportunities, several local, state, and federal authorizations may be required to undertake conservation activities on tidelands in Massachusetts. The information that follows provides context for and information regarding possible authorization needs.
Submerged Lands — Tidelands
Massachusetts generally refers to intertidal lands as the intertidal zone or tidal flats, and calls subtidal lands submerged lands. Collectively, the intertidal zone and submerged lands make up tidelands, which is the most common term used to refer to these areas. In Massachusetts, commonwealth tidelands usually begin at the historic low water line and extend to the limit of Massachusetts territorial waters. These extend three nautical miles from shore, and include all of Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bays. With exceptions in port areas and areas of coastal fill, commonwealth tidelands are owned by the commonwealth in public trust. Private tidelands include most intertidal lands (from the mean high water line out to the historic low water line or a maximum distance of 1,650 feet (100 rods), whichever is landward), and usually belong to the adjacent upland owner. Both commonwealth and private tidelands are subject to the public trust rights of fishing, fowling, and navigation. No public trust rights of recreation apply to private tidelands.
Construction, structural maintenance, dredging and dredge disposal on tidelands (whether commonwealth or private) require a license or permit under the Chapter 91 Waterways Program, administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection. The Waterways Program favors water-dependent uses and seeks to protect and expand public access to the shore.
Licensing of tidelands for shellfish aquaculture is conducted under Chapter 130, Section 57 by coastal municipalities in cooperation with the Division of Marine Fisheries (see below).
The Massachusetts Coastal Zone generally extends inland 100 feet from the mean high water line to the first major coastal road, railroad, or right of way; and seaward to the limit of state waters. The coastal zone also includes all islands and Cape Cod.
The Massachusetts Coastal Management Program is administered by the Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. CZM provides leadership in policy development, planning, and technical assistance, while the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection runs major regulatory programs that affect coastal areas, including the Waterways Program, the Wetlands Program, and the Water Quality Certification Program.
Executive Office Energy and Environmental Affairs
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
251 Causeway Street, Suite 800
Boston, MA 02114
The primary state program regulating shoreline development is the Waterway Program within the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Developments along the shore and in coastal waters must comply with the Public Waterfront Act (Chapter 91) and the Wetlands Protection Act, as well as with local zoning and wetland bylaws/ordinances. Dredging, filling, and some other activities may require a state Water Quality Certification. In state-designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, development standards may be more protective. Maritime industrial uses are favored in 11 Designated Port Areas.
The Cape Cod Commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission both play important roles in regional land use planning and regulation for 21 towns in southeastern Massachusetts.
MDEP - Waterways Program (see contact information above)
Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation
Areas of Critical Environmental Concern Program - Division of Resource Conservation
251 Causeway St., Ste. 700, Boston, MA 02114-2104
Approximately three-quarters of the coastline in Massachusetts is privately owned, with ownership typically extending to extreme low water. Public rights in the intertidal zone extend only to fishing, fowling, and navigation, and exclude recreation.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has developed an inventory of marine bathing beaches and sandy coastline. Approximately 727 miles (nearly half) of the coast are sandy, of which 153 miles are public, 51 miles semi-public, and 522 miles private. The inventory identified 419 public beaches and 91 semi-public beaches.1 Water quality at swimming beaches is monitored according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidelines, and beach status and sampling results may be viewed online.
One-hundred-ninety-five miles of shoreline are owned as federal, state or local parkland. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) operates 26 ocean-facing swimming beaches. The Office of Coastal Zone Management, the Department of Environmental Protection, and DCR work to provide public access to the shore through acquisition, licensing conditions, and recovery of public rights-of-way.
Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation
Saltwater and Ocean Beaches
251 Causeway Street, Suite 600
Boston, MA 02114-2104
Fish and Wildlife
The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game protects coastal and marine habitats through several programs and divisions. The Riverways Program seeks to restore and protect river and stream systems. The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program protects listed species and their habitats. The Division of Marine Fisheries regulates commercial and recreational fishing, including shellfisheries. The DMF also works to conserve Right Whales, and manages marine habitat restoration and propagation efforts mitigating the HubLine gas pipeline project in Boston Harbor.
Impacts on listed species, and possible mitigation measures, are identified during MEPA review (see below). DMF cooperates with other state agencies in assessing environmental impacts of coastal and marine projects.
Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game
251 Causeway St. #400
Boston, MA. 02114
Aquaculture in Massachusetts is promoted and supported by the Department of Agricultural Resources. Shellfish aquaculture, the only form currently practiced in marine waters, is regulated by the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), and aquaculture licenses are issued by seaside cities and towns with DMF’s consent. Proposed areas for shellfish licenses must not be areas historically productive of shellfish, as determined by DMF. Municipalities may engage in shellfish propagation efforts. During TNC's 2005-2006 assessment in Massachusetts, DMF did not express initial support for using shellfish aquaculture licenses for shellfish conservation purposes. DMF suggested that working directly with municipalities, perhaps as a sub-licensee, may be one way to implement shellfish restoration projects. Organizations wishing to do so should consult with DMF and the municipal officials.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulates wastewater discharges and nonpoint source pollution, and monitors water quality in tidal and non-tidal surface waters. The Massachusetts Estuaries Program within DEP is a coordinated effort to improve water quality in the estuaries of southeastern Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
Water, Wastewater, and Wetlands Program, Estuaries Program
One Winter Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
Email: contact list page
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts manages its ocean and coastal resources through various programs and departments in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. In addition to the specific management and regulatory programs described above, sizeable projects in Massachusetts size must undergo Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) review. Separate and prior to state actions, financial assistance, or the issuing of licenses or permits, MEPA may requires the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). An EIR assesses likely impacts, proposes methods to minimize environmental damage, studies project alternatives, and identifies possible mitigation measures.
Executive Office Energy and Environmental Affairs
Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office
100 Cambridge, Suite 900
Boston, Massachusetts 02114