Anglers won a big victory Monday as state Sen. Jeff Van Drew announced a plan that will allow them to continue to fish the Great Egg Harbor Bay waters around Drag Island.

“We’re very happy. It’s a win for land-based fishermen,” said Upper Township angler Nick Verducci, who helped get more than 500 signatures on a petition supporting the project.

The area was expected to be closed off permanently with the demolition later this year of the Beesleys Point Bridge followed by construction of a new southbound bridge on the Garden State Parkway. Piling from those projects will now be used to create a walkway and fishing area extending from the Atlantic County side of the bay.

Details have not been released yet, but George Bucci, a Northfield resident involved with the petition, said his understanding was that the Beesleys Point Bridge will be refurbished from the Atlantic County side to just short of the drawbridge.

“It’s shallow water but the fishing is real good in that shallow water. I’ve caught plenty of 25- to 30-pound fish in there,” Bucci said.

Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, met with the anglers in February when the petition drive began and then started working with the state Department of Transportation and state Department of Environmental Protection. He gave credit on Monday to DOT Commissioner Jim Simpson, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and Gov. Chris Christie for approving the project.

“This couldn't have happened without them. This project caps off an extraordinary commitment they have made to South Jersey. This truly will increase public access in a way that makes sense and does not infringe on residents’ property rights. Generations of fishermen and nature lovers will enjoy this spectacular area. This project is a win for residents and visitors alike,” Van Drew said.

The senator also pointed out there will be no cost to taxpayers in Atlantic or Cape May counties.

“The DOT will set aside the old Beesleys Point Bridge pilings for the new walkway, which will be constructed and maintained by the state,” said Van Drew.

Fishing organizations, including the New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, lobbied for the project. Bucci said anglers barraged the Governor’s Office with phone calls in recent weeks, stressing that New Jersey’s own coastal zone management rules call for fishing access. Anglers who do not own a boat need places to fish and have been using the Beesleys Point Bridge since it was constructed in 1928.

“People have fished this area for 86 years,” Bucci said.

The project may be several years from fruition, as Bucci said the work would begin after the parkway project, which includes replacing the 1955 southbound span that was constructed on piling and refurbishing the 1973 northbound span built on concrete piers. The first step is demolition of the Beesleys Point Bridge, which is expected to start this summer

The walkway would cross the shallows that are only 3 to 7 feet deep depending on the tide but could reach the deeper channel approximately where the toll booth is. The walkway could end at a deck of some sort. Van Drew said exact plans are not in place yet but any usable piling would be retained during demolition.

“This will take a couple of years. All the T’s have not been crossed and the I’s have not been dotted,” Van Drew said.

There would be parking on the Atlantic County side. Van Drew said eventually it could be expanded into “a wonderful recreation area.” Van Drew noted the new southbound parkway bridge over Great Egg Harbor Bay and Drag Island will also have an additional lane for cars and a separate path for bicycles, the only bike lane on the parkway.

“With this project, we are creating a more convenient and efficient way for residents to continue to enjoy our region’s beautiful coastal areas. I want to thank the anglers who worked on this issue and state officials who approached this idea with an open mind. This is what happens when we all work together for the good of the community,” Van Drew said.

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