According to NEPA, in 2017 Jamaica had 86 public bathing beaches, designated under law for the use and enjoyment of the Jamaican people. These beaches are (or should be) governed by beach licenses, issued under the Beach Control Act of 1956. There are also several beaches which are regarded as “publicly accessible” but have not been officially designated as public beaches by the Government of Jamaica.
The two principal laws concerning beach access in Jamaica are the Beach Control Act and the Prescription Act. The Beach Control Act vests all rights of the foreshore (area between the high and low tide marks) in the Crown (the government) but preserves the rights of those having a registered title over the foreshore prior to 1956 and those of fishermen who acquire rights by prescription. The public has unrestricted access only to those beaches which have been declared to be 'public recreational beaches' pursuant to Section 52 of the Beach Control Act and upon payment of a fee, if a fee has been set. Contrary to common belief, there is no free right of access to Jamaican beaches by the general public. The public may, however, claim the right of unrestricted access under Section 4 of the Prescription Act, where a right of access for twenty years has been established unless that access was granted by deed or in writing by a landowner.
The Beach Control Authority was established by the 1956 Act, and along with the Fisheries Division, sought to ensure that beach properties were reserved for public recreational and fishing use and properly managed by state agencies or private sector interests. Lack of funding over decades, however, resulted in public beaches falling into a state of disrepair, particularly after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, and a survey of the state of public beaches in 1997/8, concluded that only 17% of Jamaica’s public beaches met minimum acceptable safety standards, and the rest were either in a state of disrepair or have no facilities on site. In 1991 the Beach Control Authority was absorbed into Jamaica's statutory authority with responsibility for the environment, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) which currently administers the Beach Control Act.
There is currently no national policy guiding the protection and management of public beaches in Jamaica. A Beach Policy for Jamaica: A policy for the management of the beach, foreshore and floor of the sea was first drafted in 1997 and updated in 2000 but has not been approved by Cabinet. The GOJ’s current stated intention is to implement the Beach Access and Management Policy, which was submitted to Cabinet in 2016 and is still awaiting approval. Despite the absence of an overarching national beach policy, the NRCA is currently guided by National Coastal Management and Beach Restoration Guidelines (2017), and Jamaica's Ministry of Tourism is embarking on an islandwide programme to upgrade Jamaican public beachesPublicly accessible beaches are not only natural assets, but important sources of livelihoods for many Jamaicans, affording communities opportunities for income generation via cook shops, water sports, fishing, vending and other recreational activities.
Threats to Jamaica's beaches include beach erosion, theft of sand, coastal development (both legal and illegal), informal and unregulated settlements, removal or degradation of important natural resources (mangroves, beach vegetation, seagrasses, for example), pollution by solid waste and/or poorly treated sewage, poaching of threatened wildlife, and over-fishing. Jamaican beaches are also increasingly experiencing large influxes of Sargassum seaweed, which poses a significant management and conservation challenge. Many beach users also demonstrate poor knowledge, attitudes and practices. Visitors are careless with solid waste and damage beaches’ ecological features by removing coral, destroying mangroves, and harming wildlife, etc. Poor sanitation practices are also common.