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Massachusetts Ocean Initiative

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Massachusetts Ocean Management Initiative is a broad-based effort that led to the adoption of the nation’s first comprehensive ocean zoning plan to manage off-shore wind, tidal and wave energy projects while protecting fisheries and sensitive marine habitats.

Concerns had been raised that Massachusetts’ piecemeal process of permitting – generally the same first-come, first-served system used in other coastal areas – would be inadequate to handle a growing number of proposals to build off-shore renewable energy facilities.

Governor Mitt Romney launched the initiative in 2003 with the creation of a 23-member task force composed of state and local officials, marine stakeholders and concerned citizens. The task force released a report in 2004 called Waves of Change with 16 recommendations that included the promulgation of new legislation to give the state added legal authority to regulate off-shore energy facilities.

A bill filed in the legislature evolved into the Oceans Act of 2008 and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick. It required the state to develop an integrated ocean management plan that respected the interdependence of ecosystems and included significant partnerships with stakeholders, including environmentalists, boat pilots and fishermen.

A 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission was formed of state and local officials and stakeholders to advise the state in drafting the plan. A nine-member Ocean Science Advisory Council of academic, private non-profit and government scientists reviewed scientific data and provided additional information.

After hundreds of stakeholder meetings, 18 listening sessions, and five public hearings, the final Ocean Management Plan was issued in December 2009.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Recognition of the need for an ecosystem-wide approach.
  • Adaptive Management: Emphasis on creating an adaptive management plan.
  • Adaptive Management: Development of science-based metrics to evaluate the management plan.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The Ocean Management Plan includes four primary objectives, as specified by the Oceans Act of 2008:

  • To balance and protect the natural, social, cultural, historic, and economic interests of the marine ecosystem through integrated management.
  • To recognize and protect biodiversity, ecosystem health, and the interdependence of ecosystems.
  • To support the wise use of marine resources, including renewable energy, sustainable uses, and infrastructure.
  • To incorporate new knowledge as the basis for management that adapts over time to address changing social, technological and environmental conditions.


Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Key Parties

  • State, regional, and local leaders and planning authorities
  • Marine stakeholders such as fishermen and boat pilots
  • Partners such as the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership
  • Endangered Species Program, a unit of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
  • Natural Heritage

Program Structure

Ocean Management Plan

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) developed the Ocean Management Plan, assisted by a 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission and nine-member Ocean Science Advisory Council. Both bodies receive reports on its execution and will be involved in an upcoming five-year review.

Ocean Advisory Commission

The Ocean Advisory Commission includes state senators, state representatives, an expert in the development of offshore renewable energy facilities, as well as representatives of the following stakeholder groups and regional planning organizations:

  • Commercial fishers
  • Environmental organizations
  • Coastal Zone Management
  • Cape Cod Commission
  • Martha’s Vineyard Commission
  • Merrimack Valley Planning Commission
  • Metropolitan Area Planning Council
  • Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District

Science Advisory Council

The Science Advisory Council includes three scientists each from academia, private non-profit groups, and government agencies. The council will continue to focus on developing aspects of a science framework that will be used to assess the plan. The areas of focus will be:

  • Habitat classification
  • Acquisition of socioeconomic data regarding human uses
  • Climate change
  • Assessment of performance indicators

In addition, EEA will coordinate with regional planning authorities to develop terms for the “appropriate scale” of allowable energy facilities located in accordance with the plan.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

The Massachusetts Ocean Management Initiative responded to the increasing interest in building renewable energy facilities within the three-mile boundary of state waters. The U.S. Department of Energy had classified the potential for wind power in the area as excellent to outstanding.

Various proposals had been floated to construct renewable energy facilities and the state was moving to encourage their construction. In 2008, for instance, the legislature enacted two laws to boost the use of renewable energy. The Green Communities Act mandates that 15 percent of the state’s electric load will be served by renewable energy by 2020. The Global Warming Solutions Act requires steep, economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Governor Deval Patrick set a goal for the generation of electricity by wind power.

However, state leaders sought scientifically-informed criteria to govern the locations of renewable energy facilities to operate them safely and without conflicts with sensitive marine habitats and fisheries.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The coastal waters of Massachusetts lie at the boundary of two major biogeographic regions. The ocean north of Cape Cod is influenced by the colder Gulf of Maine currents, while the ocean south of Cape Cod is influenced by the warmer Gulf Stream. Varieties of water depths, dissolved oxygen and stratification can be found throughout the region. More than 200 species of fish can be found in state waters, as well as significant numbers of birds along the shore, including the endangered Piping Plover.

The coastal waters are vital for economic activity, transportation and recreation in Massachusetts. Commercial seafood is a $1.6 billion industry, with sea scallop and lobster as the most valuable catches. Shipping handled by the Port of Boston is responsible for $2.4 billion in annual economic impact. Cruise boats, sightseeing vessels, water taxis and ferries all ply the coastal area. Beaches and near-shore waters are important to tourism and recreation.


Pollution and overfishing, however, have significantly impacted the marine environment. In deeper waters, much of the ocean bottom has been scoured by trawling gear, greatly changing the habitat. Many estuaries on the south side of Buzzard’s Bay and Cape Cod have high nutrient contents and low bottom dissolved oxygen levels. Overfishing remains a problem. Populations of several species of fish are very low.

More recently, the state identified climate change as a significant new threat, as well as potential problems in building new off-shore energy facilities to mitigate reliance on fossil fuels. Constructing renewable energy facilities in the off-shore environment could negatively impact sensitive marine habitats and fisheries.


Major Strategies

To achieve its objectives, the Ocean Management Plan, through the development of exclusionary criteria, such as sensitive habitats, key fisheries, and important cultural resources, mapped the coastal waters of Massachusetts to delineate the locations of renewable energy development and minimize conflicts with other uses.

Marine Zoning

  • Prohibited Areas. This zone does not allow new uses and encompasses the Cape Cod Ocean Sanctuary, which includes the Cape Cod National Seashore.
  • Wind Energy Areas. Two zones, representing approximately two percent of the planned area and located off the southwestern coast of Massachusetts, are designated for the development of commercial- and community-scale wind energy projects, as well as pilot projects to evaluate wind and tidal energy facilities. The Gosnold Wind Energy Area and Martha’s Vineyard Wind Energy Area have suitable water depths, wind resources, and an absence of conflict with other uses or sensitive habitats. Local planning bodies retain their authority over projects within their jurisdictions.
  • Multiple-Use Areas. Accounting for two-thirds of the planned area, these zones are open to community-scale wind energy projects, commercial and pilot wave and tidal energy projects, aquaculture, installation of cables and pipelines, and the extraction of sand and gravel. Still, projects must be evaluated against any potential impacts, especially to special, sensitive or unique habitat areas identified in the areas.

Future Zoning Areas

  • Extraction of Sand and Gravel. Climate change and rising sea levels will contribute to erosion and the loss of beaches, increasing the need for sand and gravel to protect sensitive areas. The state will work with the U.S. Geological Survey to refine existing data and identify specific locations for each coastal region to support the appropriate extraction of sand and gravel. A specific management plan for the activity is to be developed.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The Ocean Management Plan specifies that a series of performance indicators will be used to identify adverse trends in the managed area and evaluate management strategies, which could be adapted when the plan is reviewed in five years. Performance indicators are grouped under the headings of governance, environmental, and socio-economic. Specific indicators include:

  • Changes to feeding, nesting or breeding areas of marine species
  • Water quality
  • Economic value of fisheries
  • The number of renewable energy projects proposed and permitted

Because of the urgency in developing the plan, it recommended the commissioning of additional research, guided by a science framework and working committees of the Science Advisory Council. The science framework includes seven goals: Increasing understanding of effects of climate change and the implications for management actions; identifying impacts of stressors on the ecosystem; developing an indicator framework to assess and improve the effectiveness of management measures; and informing managers and the public of scientific findings.



Creation of a Legal Framework

The Oceans Act of 2008 provides a forward-thinking, legal template for other coastal states to emulate Massachusetts and develop marine zoning to regulate off-shore renewable energy facilities at an early stage of the industry’s development. It also created a trust fund for the collection of fees paid by the developers of any projects to be used to directly mitigate any adverse effects.

Precautionary Plan Development

Massachusetts’ experience points the way toward a model of developing comprehensive management plans in a timely fashion and addressing uses of the oceans in a proactive manner. The state, which put a moratorium on permitting of off-shore renewable energy facilities, developed and implemented the Ocean Management Plan in less than two years. The plan represented a broad consensus on the need for greater regulations on specific types of new uses of the coastal environment. Significantly, the plan did not reopen contentious debates on the regulation of fishing, and benefitted from the fact that several types of new uses – such as aquaculture and commercial-scale tidal and wave energy projects – were not practicable at the time because of technological or market conditions.

Recognizing the accelerated development of the plan, state leaders and stakeholders specified a course of future research to be conducted to inform managers and the public when the plan is reviewed in five years.


Website Links

Massachusetts Ocean Management Initiative:

The Oceans Act of 2008. Available:

Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs:

Massachusetts Ocean Partnership (SeaPlan):