Wetlands Protection

Related pages:  Stormwater  |    2013 Wetlands Action Plan  |   Acushnet Wetlands Case  |   Holly Woods Road Wetlands Case  |   Right to Appeal


A major focus of the Buzzards Bay NEP remains the protection and restoration of coastal and inland wetlands and habitat in the Buzzards Bay watershed. In the map below of core wetlands, it is clear how important wetlands are in the Buzzards Bay watershed.

Map of wetlands in the Buzzards Bay watershed

Map of core wetlands in the Buzzards Bay watershed determined by interpreation of aerial photographs (DEP 2007 MassGIS dataset; click to enlarge).

Interactive Maps

The interactive map files below show DEP core wetlands evident from aerial photographs, at a much higher resolution than the map at the top of this page. Actual jurisdictional wetland areas generally exceed the aerial mapped wetland areas, but these maps are very useful for planning, evaluating wetlands on undeveloped parcels, and for documenting legal and illegal wetland destruction. These files are quite large so we recommend downloading them to a specific directory on your computer (right click on the link, then save to a new directory e.g. “googleearth”), then opening them with Google Earth.

If you do not have Google earth downloaded on your computer, we recommend you install this free program is you want to use some of the geographic data sets we provide on our site.

Download Google Earth now to display the maps below.

Wetlands on Cape Cod

Wetlands in western Buzzards Bay watershed

Updated presentation of DEP 2009 coverage for all Buzzards Bay towns (29 MB):
all Buzzards Bay wetlands.

2011 building footprints coincident with past core wetland maps

Structures coincident with wetlands, excluding upland beach areas.
(These files are posted as part of a wetland change study.)

Tip: In Google earth, right click on the wetlands kmz file and change the properties of the fill so that the wetland areas are 50 percent transparent or more.


Marine and freshwater wetlands are some of the world’s most naturally productive areas, and they perform many functions that are useful to man. The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, Massachusetts G.L. Chapter 131, section 40, officially recognizes that wetlands are crucial to the following interests:

  • Protection of public and private water supply
  • Protection of groundwater supply
  • Flood control
  • Prevention of storm damage
  • Prevention of pollution
  • Protection of land containing shellfish
  • Protection of fisheries
  • Protection of wildlife habitat.

Marine wetlands, especially salt marshes, and eelgrass beds, shellfish beds, together with other marine habitats, are fundamental for healthy coastal ecosystems. With respect to protecting marine water quality and coastal resources, freshwater wetlands are important in removing nutrients and other pollution associated with development. The need, as recognized by the legislature, to preserve freshwater and marine wetlands, can be an important factor in coastal water quality. For these reasons, coastal wetlands and certain inland wetlands are a major focus of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program.

In Massachusetts, 4050% of the wetlands base has been lost, and wetlands continue to be destroyed and degraded at an unacceptable rate. A recent study conducted in the southeastern part of the state indicated that between 1977 and 1986 alone, over 1300 acres of freshwater wetlands were lost. Although the passage of the inland wetland protection regulations in 1983 improved this situation considerably, these wetlands are still being lost, and the current regulations for freshwater wetlands fall short of full protection.

Massachusetts provides a higher level of protection for its coastal salt marshes through the Wetlands Protection Act Regulations and the Wetlands Restriction Program. The regulations are less protective of subtidal wetlands and habitat. Although the Wetlands Protection Act offers some protection for these areas, they nonetheless are being altered by increased in boat activity, and declines in water quality from nonpoint source pollution and nitrogen loading. Bordering vegetated wetlands are provided an intermediate level of protection, but state rules for “limited projects” allow for up to 5,000 square feet of wetlands to be altered or filled for a number of reasons. State and federal regulations offer virtually no protection to isolated wetlands.

In general, cumulative impacts from many small projects are a major threat to all types of wetlands and are often the most significant cause of wetland degradation and habitat decline. This is because the existing management framework for wetland protection is inadequate for assessing and protecting against cumulative impacts.

An important part of the problem in protecting wetlands is that some Conservation Commissions may not be using existing state regulations as effectively as possible to protect wetlands and marine habitat. The present regulatory process seems to be inadequate to deal with the growth that is fueling the continuous loss of wetlands. Because the Wetlands Protection Act provides what many consider only a statewide minimum level of protection, many communities have adopted zoning or non-zoning bylaws to further protect the interests of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Sometimes these local measures add additional wetland resource values of sedimentation control, recreation, agricultural and historical values, aesthetics, and aquaculture. These local efforts provided an enhanced layer of regulatory oversight and protection to wetland resources.

Wetland Protection Strategy

In the 1992 Buzzards Bay CCMP Wetlands Action Plan, the Buzzards Bay NEP identified as its principal goal of the “Long-term increase of high-quality wetlands and coastal habitat in Buzzards Bay.” This concept was well ahead of its time, because the federal government and Commonwealth were just beginning to embrace a “No Net Loss” policy. This goal also flew in the face of the reality that at least 40% of Massachusetts’ original wetlands had already been lost.

In order to achieve the CCMPs goal, the following objectives have to be achieved. We must:

  • Protect existing wetlands.
  • Encourage restoration of wetlands (and allow replication as a last resort).
  • Improve enforcement of wetlands laws.
  • Upgrade the capability of local conservation commissions.
  • Encourage non-permitting options as a supplement to the issuance of permits whenever possible.
  • Protect and restore habitat used by threatened, rare and endangered coastal species and anadromous and catadromous fish.

Buzzards Bay municipalities often request technical support from the Buzzards Bay NEP for a wide range of wetland issues to achieve these objectives including review of wetlands delineations, review of permits and engineering designs, preparation of local bylaws, training on wetland boundary identification, and local decision making procedures. We also have provided grants to towns for a wide range of projects.

In the sections below are some resources that can help municipalities and citizens protect and restore wetlands.

An important focus of the BBNEP has also been to encourage the adoption of local wetland buffer regulations. A good general reference on the importance of wetland buffers, and regulatory language that can be used as the basis of local regulations can be found in the document Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments (677 kb pdf) by the Environmental Law Institute.

Buzzards Bay Municipal Bylaws and Regulations Online

Town of Bourne May 2000 Wetland Bylaw (links to Town’s website).
Bourne Wetland Regulations, promulgated August 2000 to implement the bylaw (a 113 KB PDF file)
–The town developed these regulations with the assistance of the Buzzards Bay NEP.
Town of Falmouth Wetland Regulations on the BBP site.
–The town developed these regulations with the assistance of the Buzzards Bay NEP, including Falmouth DCPC regulations for Black Beach.

General Information

Buzzards Bay NEP releases $67,500 in new round of municipal grants for wetland and open space protection and restoration
Click on the link for more information.

An unheralded shellfish bed opening
[click on picture for more info- 200kb PDF]
Broad Marsh River Shellfish Closures Map

Inventory of tidally restricted salt marshes: FINAL REPORT AVAILABLE
The Buzzards Bay NEP mapped tidally restricted salt marshes and coastal wetlands around Buzzards Bay. The final report (June 2002) can be downloaded. Click on the link to learn more.

From Spring 2001: new BBP Vernal Pool information page.
“Its that time of year again. The spring “peepers” will soon be out. That means it is vernal pool time. Click here to learn more.”

Wetland Restoration in Buzzards Bay… WANTED: Private and Public Sponsors

Bourne Wetland Regulations, August 2000 (as a PDF file, 113 KB)

The town developed these regulations with the assistance of the Buzzards Bay NEP.

Talk Outline: How wetland regulations affect permitting of Docks and Piers (PDF file)

Talk by John Rockwell, BBP on 11/13/00 in Falmouth.

Project updates Town of Falmouth Wetland Regulations at ConCom’s request.

Spragues Cove Project.
A two acre wetland constructed with technical support from the Project and financial support from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The purpose of this constructed wetland is to manage pollution from a stormwater discharge in the Town of Marion, MA causing shellfish bed closures.

Report: The Financial Impact of Town-Wide Conservation Restrictions to the Marion Town Budget

A Case Study Conducted at the Request of The Board of Selectmen of Marion, Massachusetts

Falmouth Wetland Regulations.
In Massachusetts, implementation of the state wetland regulations is delegated to municipal Conservation Commissions. These Conservation Commissions, generally made up of 5 or 7 volunteer members, are appointed by Town Boards of Selectmen or City Councils. Under Massachusetts Home Rule legislation, municipalities may also adopt local bylaws that are more stringent or better reflect local needs than regulations under the state’s Wetlands Protection Act. Most Buzzards Bay municipalities have adopted these local bylaws. On this page you will find new revised wetland regulations that the Town of Falmouth is about to adopt. In 1987, the Town of Falmouth adopted through Town Meeting its current wetland bylaw and regulations. In 1997, the Buzzards Bay NEP is helping the town rewrite these regulations to bring them up to date and to be more consistent with the State’s Wetland Protection Act regulations.”

Falmouth Black Beach and Sippewisset DCPC Regulations.
On Cape Cod Massachusetts, a county government body known as the Cape Cod Commission has established a process where towns on Cape Cod can designate so-called “Districts of Critical Planning Concern” (“DCPCs”). Such a designation enables better protection of living resources, habitat, water quality or other interests identified in a DCPC designation. In DCPCs, the Cape Cod Commission would provide an additional level of regulatory oversight on development and other activities within the DCPC boundary. For a DCPC designation to be accepted by the Cape Cod Commission, towns must adopt local regulations applying to the DCPC.

In the Town of Falmouth, the Falmouth Conservation Commission developed these regulations for an area known as Black Beach and Sippewisset Marsh with technical and administrative support from the Buzzards Bay NEP. The Project worked with the town to ensure that these DCPC regulations with Commonwealth of Massachusetts Conservation Commission authorities and met the technical requirements of the DCPC regulation. The page above is the complete DCPC regulations that the Town of Falmouth adopted. These regulations are enforceable both under the Town’s local wetland bylaws and the County’s DCPC regulatory oversight.

Cranberry Bog Initiative.
A program to help reduce pesticide runoff.

Herring Restoration Projects.
Initiatives funded by the Project.

Wetland Restoration and Protection Efforts

To see maps of the location of habitat protection and wetland restoration efforts where the BBNEP provided some level of technical or financial support, go to our GPRA maps page.

Two Early Landmark Wetland Interventions by the Buzzards Bay NEP

Page about the BBNEP’s involvement in the Acushnet Conservation Commission abandoning a town wetland form
This correspondence on the page above is notable because in 1992, Acushnet was one of several Commonwealth communities that created their own wetland permit form and application process. The Buzzards Bay NEP felt that the town’s application process did not provide adequate public notice, due process, or state review. In 1992, the town of Acushnet filed only 3 wetland permits with DEP, whereas 200 “in-house” wetland permits were issued without review. As a result of this letter, and an appeal by the Buzzards Bay NEP of a town-accepted wetland boundary in a particular case, the Town of Acushnet abandoned their in-house wetland permit application form by the following year. The town also later agreed to hire a Conservation agent as part of a tri-town district with Marion and Rochester.

The Mattapoisett Holly Woods Road Subdivision Case page
This letter (the first of nine pieces of correspondence by the Buzzards Bay NEP), and a wetlands appeal by the Buzzards Bay NEP, eventually led to a series of actions that resulted in a developer of a residential subdivision agreeing to re-delineate the wetlands on a 90+ acre subdivision. It turned out that 60+ acres of wetland were overlooked in the original wetland permit filing with the Town of Mattapoisett, and under an agreement with DEP, fill was removed from wetlands.


Research Legal Decisions, Cases, and permits

DEP’s online permit application database
Mass DEP Appeals Web site.
Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries
Massachusetts Wetland Regulations

Selected Legal Decisions

MA SJC decision: Barnstable Con Com cannot deny a dock under the “Public Trust Doctrine”, but can deny under other portions of wetland bylaw.

Case was dismissed because the abutters failed to use the words “we wish to intervene” in their comment letter to DEP Waterways on a Chapter 91 permit.

Environmental Regulations and Legal Decisions

Links to related sites

MA DEP Massachusetts River Protection Act Information.
Areas within 200 feet of the banks of rivers and perennial streams are subject to the Act.

MA DEP Wetlands Page.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Wetlands administers the state Wetlands Protection Act. Visit this site to learn about the latest information on state level wetlands policies and regulations.

Massachusetts Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP) in the Office of Coastal Zone Management
Includes “Wetlands Restoration News” Link. Go to this page then right click on the publication and save the pdf files to your hard disk, then open. This will improve the speed of navigation because the files are large (some are ~4MB).

Massachusetts Chapter 91 information.
Rights to fishing, fowling and navigation.

Massachusetts Rivers Protection Act.
What does it mean?.

MA DEP Wetlands Regulations Page.
Here is the direct link to get the latest information and updates on DEP wetland regulations.

National Wetlands Inventory

Plymouth County Soil Survey

MEPA Environmental Monitor File Index

Society of Wetland Scientists

US Fish and Wildlife Service 96 wetland species list

USDA Hydric Soils of the US

US Fish and Wildlife

Rutgers University Wetland Delineation. Short Course Training and related information.

Massachusetts Tidal Benchmarks

Environmental and Aesthetic Impacts of Small Docks and Piers, (NOAA Workshop Report, 4.3 MB pdf)