State of the Beach/State Reports/MA/Beach Ecology

From Beachapedia

Home Beach Indicators Methodology Findings Beach Manifesto State Reports Chapters Perspectives Model Programs Bad and Rad Conclusion

Massachusetts Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access83
Water Quality75
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-8
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures9 3
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas25
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management Policy Guide- Oct 2011 is the most current statement of the state's coastal program policies. The report recognizes the beach as an ecosystem:

"Intertidal (as well as submerged) lands provide ideal habitat for bivalve mollusks, another living marine resource that is both renewable and economically valuable. The maintenance of productive shellfish beds not only ensures the continuance of shellfish per se, it also plays a direct role in supporting fish stocks by providing a major food source. The young shellfish in the planktonic larval stage that are produced in large quantities during spring and summer are an important source of food for the young stages of marine fishes and many crustaceans. Terrestrial coastal habitat supports an array of critical and valuable habitat functions. Beaches, dunes, and banks absorb storm and wave energy, protecting developed areas such as homes, businesses, and infrastructure, as well as highly productive salt marshes, wetlands, lagoons, and ponds. Terrestrial habitat areas are also important for their recycling of nutrients derived from storm drift and tidal action. Beaches and dunes are also extremely significant to avian wildlife, providing a range of habitat niches for nesting, foraging, resting, and staging."

Habitat Policy 1 states:

"Protect coastal, estuarine, and marine habitats—including salt marshes, shellfish beds, submerged aquatic vegetation, dunes, beaches, barrier beaches, banks, salt ponds, eelgrass beds, tidal flats, rocky shores, bays, sounds, and other ocean habitats—and coastal freshwater streams, ponds, and wetlands to preserve critical wildlife habitat and other important functions and services including nutrient and sediment attenuation, wave and storm damage protection, and landform movement and processes."

Ocean Resources Policy 1 states that any aquaculture developments must protect the ecological resources of dunes, beaches, and barrier beaches. The Policy Guide does not, however, give beach ecology the same protection when it comes to beach related management such as sand nourishment.

Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) has produced Guidelines for Barrier Beach Management in Massachusetts (1994).

Massachusetts has established regulations that restrict "beach grooming" practices. The regulations of the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act state (310 CMR: 10.27 (1)) in part, “Coastal beaches are extremely important in recycling of nutrients derived from storm drift and tidal action. Vegetative debris along the drift line is vital for resident and migratory shorebirds, which feed largely on invertebrates which eat the vegetation.”

These areas are presumed to be significant and the burden of proof is on the proponent to demonstrate otherwise.

While grooming is actively discouraged in Massachusetts, grooming does routinely occur in certain areas of the state. For example, the recent expansion of Codium fragile (commonly referred to as deadman’s fingers or oyster thief; a non-native seaweed) distribution and dramatic increase in abundance in southern Massachusetts, particularly southern Cape Cod, led to a substantial accumulation of rotting Codium fragile on popular bathing beaches. The accumulation of wrack, predominantly comprised of Codium fragile, is frequently removed from Cape Cod beaches throughout the summer and fall.

In Provincetown, a program began in April 2012 to conduct "beach raking" on both sides of the pier but also to monitor the beach for effects that the raking may have on beach ecology. Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies will monitor the two areas to be raked as well as a control area that will not be raked. Data collected will include profiles of the beach elevations, the degree of compaction of the beach sediments, the presence of invertebrate species, bacteria and pathogens in the harbor water, characterization of the wrack — such as its relative age, the composition of species within it, its weight, the percent of moisture and the amount of marine debris it contains. A bird survey also will be conducted as part of the project. Read more.

Massachusetts Ocean Management Program

The Massachusetts Ocean Management Program is working to establish a more proactive process for managing ocean resources within state waters; provide a seamless ecosystem approach by working with the federal government to improve management of ocean resources in federal waters; and review, revise, and strengthen administrative, regulatory, and statutory provisions and policies to address environmental, planning, and public trust issues in both state and federal waters.

One of the draft principles developed in December 2003 by the Ocean Management Task Force was the following:

Respect the Interdependence of Ecosystems - The health of an ocean ecosystem depends on management policies that respect the interdependence of air, land and water resources and the interconnection of all species to each other and their habitat. In addition, ecosystems often cross international, federal, state and local boundaries. Therefore, state ocean management policies should reflect this interdependence and should be coordinated with other jurisdictions.

The Massachusetts Ocean Management Task Force was launched in 2003 and charged with developing recommendations, which were released in the 2004 Waves of Change report. This effort, which was chaired and staffed by CZM, spurred the passage of the Oceans Act of 2008 and formed the foundation for the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan and ongoing ocean mapping and management activities.

A dispute between the towns of Orleans and Chatham on Cape Cod developed that affects both beach access and beach ecology. Historically, the towns have had an agreement that allows access to Chatham's part of the beach, called North Beach, through Orleans' part of the beach, called Outer Beach. At the end of June 2006, Orleans officials closed all of their Nauset Beach access south of the parking lot for about a month to off-road vehicles to protect nesting piping plovers. That effectively closed the Chatham portion of the beach to all but boaters. Orleans selectemen and state officials have claimed that Chatham did not have plover monitors and did not post signs identifying habitat areas. In January 2007, the two towns came to an agreement on management of the beach. The intermunicipal agreement guarantees that emergency vehicles and camp owners can access the beach during closures, and requires that each town provide funding for plover monitoring. More information here.

Coastal Estuarine Land Conservation Program

The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) was established by Congress in 2002 "for the purpose of protecting important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical, or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses," giving priority to lands that can be effectively managed and protected and that have significant ecological value. Congress directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to administer this program and to establish guidelines that would make CELCP project selection an objective and nationally competitive process. To meet this directive, NOAA developed CELCP guidelines that require states wanting to participate in this voluntary program to first prepare a Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan (CELC Plan). NOAA is expected at some future date to require approval of a CELC Plan for a state to be eligible to nominate grant applications to NOAA under the CELCP.

To take full advantage of CELCP land acquisition funding, and to help guide selection of state priority projects for nomination to NOAA, CZM drafted a state CELC Plan on behalf of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), with close cooperation with the EEA Director of Land Policy and Division of Conservation Services. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also participated extensively in developing the plan, and several major non-governmental land conservation organizations also reviewed and commented on the state's plan. The CELC Plan used many existing statewide planning efforts, such as the Statewide Land Conservation Plan and BioMap2 as building blocks, while adding new information and screening strategies. CZM submitted the Massachusetts CELC Plan to NOAA and it was formally approved by NOAA's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management on February 8, 2008. This plan will help guide the state's selection of priority coastal and estuarine land conservation projects. Also available below is the geo-spacial data used to develop the CELC Plan's Map of potential "project areas." Municipalities are encouraged to download these GIS coverages and use them to help identify where potential CELCP priority project areas are located within their towns.

Since the CELCP program began functioning under its current competitive format for the Federal Fiscal Year 2007, CZM has nominated ten projects to NOAA for consideration in its national ranking process. Two of these projects ranked high enough to be awarded CELCP funding. The Center Hill Beach Conservation Project, in Plymouth, was awarded $2,263,500 in FFY 2007 funding, and the Great Neck Conservation Partnership Project, in Wareham, was awarded $1,986,500 in FFY 2009 funding. While almost all of the remaining CZM nominated projects made it onto NOAA's list of projects eligible for CELCP funding, they did not rank high enough to receive funding. This underscores the highly competitive nature of the CELCP funding, and the high project quality needed to meet the Massachusetts standard for nomination to NOAA, and especially the national standard for competitiveness and funding. For this reason, CZM strongly encourages all project proponents to contact CZM early to discuss their prospective project and for ideas on how to best package the project to maximize its national competitiveness.

For the 2013 Federal Budget NOAA did not run the CELCP because of funding issues.

For Federal FY 2014 NOAA expects CELCP funding to be approximately $3 million. Given this low level of funding CZM is anticipating that NOAA will reduce the maximum amount of funding for any one project to $1 million. CZM is anticipating NOAA will issue a notice of CELCP funding availability late in June 2013. Shortly after this notice CZM will public an RFR soliciting potential projects. CZM’s state nomination of projects is expected to be due to NOAA sometime in September 2013.


No formal ‘critical habitat’ is designated in or adjacent to sandy beach systems. However, habitats identified in the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act that are routinely monitored are eelgrass beds and sand dunes.

You can identify shorebirds, marine mammals, seaweeds, dune plants, and more with CZ-Tip - Identifying Animals and Plants on the Massachusetts Coast.


Eelgrass Bed

The distribution of eelgrass is mapped on a three-to-five year cycle throughout Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Eelgrass habitat is often found adjacent to (or within) popular beach areas in relatively quiescent waters. Scallops, crabs, minnows, and juvenile fish all depend on the sea grass for shelter. Several eelgrass monitoring projects in Massachusetts, that complement DEP’s mapping, are designing protocol to track changes in the ecological condition of eelgrass habitat.

Eelgrass data can be found here.

An article Spotlight on Eelgrass - A Species and Habitat at Risk by Anthony R. Wilbur, appeared in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of Coastlines.

An Eelgrass Restoration Site Selection Model has been developed by Fred Short and Dave Burdick of the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. This spatial model is designed to assist in determining optimal locations for restoration of eelgrass (Zostera marina). This model is now available at no cost on CD-ROM. Distribution of the CD-ROMs is made possible by a grant from the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET). Contact Steve Bliven at or (508) 997-3826 for more information, or to get a copy of the CD.

Pleasant Bay lost 24 percent of its eelgrass from 1951 to 2001. The good news is that's far better than other more polluted harbors, such as Waquoit Bay in Mashpee, where only about 5 percent of the historical eelgrass remains. Releases of nitrates and other nitrogen compounds from sewage and agriculture causes excessive growth of both macro algae (seaweed) and phytoplankton which out-competes the eelgrass. In tests at Waquoit Bay removal of seaweed from several study plots resulted in eelgrass density increasing by a factor of four in one season.

Primary Dunes

Massachusetts CZM mapped the primary dune from Cape Ann northwest to the New Hampshire border. Primary dunes are defined as the largest, first dune located landward of the ocean. The stretch of sandy beach from Cape Ann to the New Hampshire border is highly prone to ocean storms, particularly northeasters, and erosion is a concern. The primary dune mapping was conducted in association with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to identify high hazard zones to promote sound development in coastal areas. This project can serve as a foundation for additional mapping of dune habitat.

A very informative article From Dune to Shining Sea: The Coastal and Marine Habitats of Massachusetts by Anne Donovan and Dr. Megan Tyrrell appeared in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of Coastlines. Also see Beach Profiles: Who's Who on the Beach and Beyond from the same issue that discusses Mermaid’s Purse, the Northern Moon Snail, the Channeled Whelk, Sand Dollars, the Slipper Shell, Lady or Calico Crabs, Jingle Shell, Razor Clams, and the Bay Scallop.

Cape Cod is protected as the Cape Cod National Seashore. Development is regulated, but the feet of humans and the rise in sea level due to global warming are still causing destruction on the beaches of the Cape. The Province Lands are an expanse of dunes, woodland, and seashores composing the outermost hook of Cape Cod. The Lands are teeming with wildlife: red fox, coyote, white-tailed deer, hog-nosed snakes, great horned owls, marsh hawks, piping plovers, blue herons, and herring gulls. It takes as few as twenty human footsteps to destroy the beach grass Amophila breviligulata. Amophila grows up through new layers of sand and stabilizes dunes with its elaborate root system. Poison ivy is everywhere on the Province Lands; an efficient soil-binder, it covers large areas as a trailing vine or low shrub.

There is a substantial amount of information regarding the ecology of coastal barrier islands on the Websites for Cape Cod National Seashore and the Vital Signs Monitoring Program of the National Park Service's Northeast Coastal and Barrier Network.

As part of the Massachusetts Ocean Education Program, CZM has developed a comprehensive list of educational resources that cover coastal and ocean issues, with a special focus on Massachusetts-based programs and K-12 materials. The directory includes field trips, speakers, curricula, publications, parent/child interactive programs, after school programs, workshops, film/video, newsletter/periodicals, library/resource centers, volunteer opportunities, and other programs designed to assist K-12 educators in teaching about the Commonwealth's ocean resources.

Woods Hole Sea Grant developed a poster These Dunes Aren't Made for Walking that explains the ecological and beach-protecting benefits of dunes.

2005 Census of Nesting Piping Plovers

Piping Plover

MassWildlife has compiled figures for Piping Plovers with data gathered through the cooperation of nearly 70 biologists and beach managers from state and federal agencies, local municipalities and private conservation groups. A total of 475 pairs of Piping Plovers nested at 109 sites on Massachusetts coastal beaches. This represents a three percent decline from last year’s 490 pairs. Dr. Scott Melvin, Senior Zoologist for MassWildlife, noted that the average number of chicks fledged per pair was only 1.0 (below the minimum reproductive success needed to sustain Massachusetts breeding population). of Piping Plovers. This low reproductive success is due in part to two spring coastal storms that destroyed many nests. Beach management practices to safeguard beach-nesting birds from disturbance, mortality, and habitat degradation still remain effective conservation tools. Piping plovers are classified as “Threatened" on both the federal and state endangered species lists.

An article The curious case of the piping plover was published at on August 14, 2011. The article details the plover protection efforts employed in Massachusetts over the last 25 years, the associated costs, and the apparent results. Cape Cod Times published a similar article.

MA CZM offered volunteer monitoring grants to Salem Sound Coastwatch and the North & South Rivers Watershed Association to perform beach surveys for invasive species. Salem Sound Coastwatch found 15 invasive species along the the shorelines of Beverly, Salem, Gloucester, Manchester, and Marblehead. The species found were: the macroalgae Codium fragile and Grateloupia turuturu, the anemones Diadumene lineata and Sagartia elegans, the common periwinkle Littorina littorea, the Eurpoean flat oyster Ostrea edulis, the crabs Carcinus maenas and Hemigrapsus sanguineus, the lacey vbryozoan Membranipora membranacea, and the tunicates Ascidiella aspersa, Botrylloides violaceus, Botryllus schlosseri, Didemnum sp., Diplosoma listerianum, and Styela clava.

The survey by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association identified five invasive species along the shores of towns of Marshfield and Scituate. The species were: Lacy crust bryozoan (Membranipora sp.), Common periwinkle (Littorina littorea), Orange striped anemone (Diadumene lineata), Green crab (Carcinus maenas), and Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus).

Coastal Dune Protection and Restoration Using ‘Cape’ American Beachgrass & Fencing is a Sea Grant publication that addresses restoration of frontal coastal sand dune systems with sand fencing and ‘Cape’ American beachgrass.

Mass Audubon has several educational programs, including the Cape Cod Field Schools active field courses for adults. These courses are two to four days long and immerse students in the natural environment of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and Monomoy Natinoal Wildlife Refuge. Students learn about the beaches, dunes, woods, and wetlands of the Cape Cod coastal area.

A collection of reports, databases, and data layers prepared by consultants for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative offers a birds-eye view of sandy beach and tidal inlet habitats within the U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range of the endangered piping plover based on imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations. By comparing the location, status, and condition of potential plover breeding grounds from Maine to North Carolina during three distinct time periods -- before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after the storm, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts -- these inventories provide a habitat baseline that can help resource managers plan for future change.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

Massachusetts Aquatic Invasive Species Program

The introduction of aquatic invasive species in Massachusetts poses a serious threat to the water resources of the Commonwealth. These non-native plants and animals are transported into and throughout Massachusetts via commercial shipping, as fouling organisms on recreational boats, through the release of unwanted aquarium contents, or a variety of other transport vectors related to human activities. Because they have few natural controls in their new environments, these species have great potential for rapid colonization and are already having significant impacts on the biodiversity and integrity of aquatic habitats in Massachusetts.

Recognizing the potentially devastating impacts of non-native species on marine and freshwater environments, a coalition of Massachusetts state agencies, federal government officials, consultants, and other managers formed the Massachusetts Aquatic Invasive Species Working Group. The primary objective of the Working Group has been to develop and implement a comprehensive Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan for Massachusetts. Through the development of this plan, the Working Group has designated priority species for control and management, developed a coordinated monitoring and prevention strategy, and developed objectives for educating industry representatives, government employees, and the general public about the aquatic invasive species problem.

During the summer of 2009, volunteers from CZM’s Marine Invader Monitoring and Information Collaborative (MIMIC) continued to collect important data about the distribution of marine invasive species in New England waters. Established in 2006, MIMIC seeks to understand distributional patterns of marine invasive species, enable timely data collection to inform managers and rapid response efforts, and provide education on marine invasive species and how to control their spread. In 2009, nearly 100 volunteers from 10 partner groups were trained to monitor for priority marine invasive species at 65 sites in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Highlights included the first sighting of the invasive tunicate, Didemnum vexillum, at floating docks in Boston Harbor and the Boston Harbor Islands. This species is highly aggressive and has been expanding its range since first discovered in Maine in the 1980s. Data layers representing the distribution of this species and 12 other priority marine invaders are now available to view through the Massachusetts Ocean Resource Information System (MORIS). To view the marine invasive species data layers, see the MORIS website. Once you launch MORIS, the data layers can be found in the “2008 Monitoring” folder, under the “Marine Invasive Species” folder, in the “Biological Data” folder.

An article on a massive invasion of the seaweed species Heterosiphonia japonica was published in the Boston Globe on June 27, 2012. Scientists first identified the seaweed off the coast of Rhode Island in 2009 but its growth surged during Spring 2012, spreading from Long Island Sound to the southern Gulf of Maine. Beaches from Cape Ann to Cape Cod were blanketed in May and June 2012 with heaps of thickly packed red seaweed fibers resembling matted hair.

Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment Program

During fall 2010, CZM completed the second year of assessing the biological conditions of salt marshes in Massachusetts, working hand-in-hand with MassDEP to continue the development of a robust Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment Program for the Commonwealth. During the 2010 monitoring season, CZM staff led two teams of researchers from CZM, MassDEP, and Salem Sound Coastwatch to collect data on vascular plants, macroinvertebrates, and habitat complexity at 70 sites across coastal Massachusetts. In 2009, 45 sites were sampled using the same protocols. All sampling data will be analyzed to evaluate a landscape-level GIS model developed by UMass Amherst researchers. The innovative computer model and program—Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS)—predicts ecological integrity for any given point on the landscape using more than 25 specialized metrics. UMass, CZM, and MassDEP have recently enhanced the model by adding metrics specific to salt marshes (e.g., tidal restriction, ditching, etc.). The computer program lends itself to many applications and is capable of running scenario analyses for evaluating alternatives to proposed projects. An additional 50 sites were sampled for vegetation to assess the model's ability to predict land-use impacts on salt marsh border communities. Data from 185 sites, including 20 sites to be sampled in 2011, will be used to verify and calibrate the CAPS computer model. The protocols used in this study build upon tools developed through more than 15 years of salt marsh assessment at CZM. Funding support is provided by EPA Region 1 and MassDEP. Additional information will be available on the CZM website in the coming months. For more information on this project, please contact Coastal GIS and Habitat Analyst Marc Carullo at or Water Quality and Habitat Manager Jan Smith at The Gulf of Maine Habitat Classification Workshop: Mapping for Decision Making was held in September 2008 to facilitate communication on seafloor mapping and classification and to determine the need for information about marine habitats. See the workshop proceedings.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Anthony Wilbur
Marine Ecologist
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

David Janik
Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program contact
Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
(508)291-3625 x20

State of the Beach Report: Massachusetts
Massachusetts Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
2011 7 SOTB Banner Small.jpg