Coastal Issues | Public Access

Public Access


The Coastal Zone Management Act helps ensure the public has access to ocean shores and sheltered, coastal embayments for a variety of activities, including canoeing.

Each year, more than 180 million Americans visit our Nation’s coasts, spending an average of 10 days.  While they are there, many seek to engage in water-based recreation activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing. The most recent (1999-2006) National Survey on Recreation and the Environment documents the popularity of such activities. Recreational activities provide a substantial economic benefit to coastal communities through expenditures by residents and tourists, as well as taxes and jobs generated by the hospitality, recreation, and other tourist-based industries.  


Accessing the coast can be difficult. Many coastal programs strive to provide new and enhanced access and coastal access guides.

Despite the popularity of coastal activities, finding a way to get to a beach or other shorefront areas can be difficult for the public. This is due to a variety of reasons such as lack of infrastructure (e.g., public beaches, public boat launches), the fear that getting to shorefront areas requires trespassing on private property, or simply a lack of knowledge about where to go. Our nation’s population growth also has a major impact on public access. Over the past few decades, the conversion of shorefront open spaces to development has been substantial. Another emerging problem is the loss of traditional access points, such as public marinas and boat launches, as new construction or re-development projects convert them to private uses.  Finally, the continued growth in the sheer number of permanent coastal residents and temporary visitors means that, without the acquisition and construction of new access points or enhancement of existing access points (to support a greater number of users), the existing supply of access opportunities will become inadequate over time.


New Jersey, like many coastal states, uses signs to advertise public access sites.

Once acquired or constructed, public access opportunities must also be maintained and operated, meaning that the costs of supporting such infrastructure are not one-time, but rather on-going. State and local governments have to find ways to cover these costs.

Facilitating public access to beaches and other shorefronts can also lead to other management issues. Natural areas along coastal waterfronts contain sensitive habitats that are important to fish and wildlife species, so public access and uses must be designed to minimize impacts to features such as dunes, salt marshes, and other wetlands and the species that use them. User groups of different types of water-based recreation may also have conflicts with one another, such as beach-goers not wanting people on jet-skis near the shore. Finding an appropriate balance among these demands and needs is a challenge for coastal managers.

In Depth: Find out more about how coastal management programs support public access.


National Survey on Recreation and the Environment —Conducted approximately every five years and provides national survey data on recreation and tourism activities.

Access to the Waterfront: Issues and Solutions Across the Nation — Sea Grant study on the coastal access issues, solutions, and tools being implemented by Sea Grant and other programs

For more information, contact Matt Gove.