Wetlands provide critical habitat to a great diversity of plants and animals, serve as nursery grounds for many economically important fish and shellfish species, are a source of fuel for coastal and marine food webs, protect inland areas from coastal storms, and help filter potential pollutants.

Culvert before restoration

Despite their ecological and economic importance, however, wetlands are continually being harmed and degraded by human activities.

Throughout much of the history of wetland protection and management in the United States, the status of wetlands was measured by quantity not quality. Assessing wetland condition, however, is a key task in working toward the goals of the Clean Water Act "to maintain and restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of our Nation's waters." In addition, such assessment can be an integral factor in determining the success of wetland restoration/creation projects and is essential for the long-term development of water quality standards and criteria for protecting wetlands.

Wetland assessments are based on the premise that the communities of plants and animals living in a wetland will reflect the health of that wetland. When a wetland is degraded, the diversity of animals and plants often decreases and the composition of species changes. Typically, the organisms that are sensitive to human disturbances decrease in number, and organisms that are more tolerant to the disturbance make up a larger proportion of the individuals.

To identify effective approaches for assessing wetland condition, from 1995-2004, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) completed several projects. (CZM has since shifted its efforts to a Rapid Assessment Method for Evaluating Coastal Wetland Health and a Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System for Wetlands.) The CZM 1995-2004 Wetland Assessment Projects are listed below: