While enjoying a lunch on Pelican Shores recently, we noticed four tourists tying up at the dock, eager to enjoy snorkeling at Mermaid Reef. Shortly thereafter we met them returning to the dock, exclaiming their time had been fine until they were kicked off the beach at Mermaid Reef for trespassing. We were very disappointed to hear this and it sparked in us the memory of recent articles in your paper regarding Marsh Harbor as only a transit point to the Cays and not a destination. This incident above would reinforce that reality.
On discussing the restrictions to Mermaid Reef with a member of a founding family on Pelican shores, he noted that for generations, access and enjoyment of both the reef and beach had been the experience of both locals and tourists alike.
So how did we get to this place of restricted access?
Further inquiries led to a letter, written by an attorney for the current owners of the property to Local Government officials, opining that with a recent change of title, the present owners were under no obligation to provide access to the beach. Alternate views suggest that 50+ years of continuous public access, as well as Common Law declaring that all beaches in the Bahamas are to be available for the public, combine to precede and supersede any current ownership claims.
Later in the letter, the writer indicates the desire of the current owner “ to foster a good relationship with the community” and goes on to note that Friends of the Environment have access to the property and the Ministry of Tourism has permission to give access to the reef to any tourist groups who request it. While encouraging, such conditions of access mean that very few people will actually be able to enjoy the beach and reef due to lack of knowledge of the hoops to jump through and the resolve and energy necessary to do so.
We would suggest this is not good enough and is a clear contravention of decades of precedence and the reality that the foreshore, between the mean high water marks and mean low water marks, is not owned by the property owner at all but by the Commonwealth of the Bahamas on behalf of its people and visitors. This was known as the “Queen’s Bottom” before Independence.
Sadly there seems to be a trend of private property owners denying access to the foreshore based on a variety of reasons. Recently signs have been posted at Long Beach, also denying the public access to that beach on the basis of it being private property. Taking the matter a step further, at least two local resorts actually charge visitors to sit on their beaches.
We would be interested in hearing what your readers have to say about this growing trend in Abaco. While the adversarial legal route may be a necessity to reverse the trend, it would seem advisable to have the interested parties meet and collaboratively work out arrangements satisfactory for the greater good of all, which would include full access to the beaches while carefully stewarding that resource for future generations.
Stuart and Deborah Ballard
Marsh Harbor, Abaco