Kevin Riordan: Anglers up in arms over the fishing spot that got away

Gloucester City prohibits fishing on its Freedom Pier. Officials say there are plenty of other fishing spots.
Gloucester City prohibits fishing on its Freedom Pier. Officials say there are plenty of other fishing spots. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: September 24, 2012

Folks are not free to fish on Freedom Pier in Gloucester City, and the irony isn't lost on Dan Reader.

"For being a river town, we don't have much access to the river," says Reader, 53, who customizes cars for a living and used to landscape vacant lots around town for free.

He has publicly "resigned" from his volunteer activities to protest the city's move to prohibit fishing from a spot some anglers say is among the best this stretch of the Delaware River offers.

Says writer and self-described "die-hard fisherman" Ken Doyle: "It's very unfair that we can't fish because of a few" troublemakers.

Intended to reduce vandalism and the theft of metal parts from light fixtures on the pier, the ban is actually "a power trip," says Bill Cleary. The respected Gloucester journalist and the voice of the lively Cleary's Notebook website wonders why city officials "are making such a big fuss" about fishing at Freedom Pier.

The two-acre structure was handsomely renovated in 2010 for more than $1.5 million, with amenities that include a brick promenade and teak benches. The onetime Coast Guard complex has starred in the tough old city's dreams of economic revival for 25 years.

The Delran-based, family-owned Otts Enterprises plans to build a bar, restaurant, and banquet complex on Freedom Pier. It would offer dramatic views of the Walt Whitman Bridge and the Philly skyline.

"I would like to think we'll break ground no later than the spring of 2013," Otts founder Don Bigley says.

"It's a complicated project, and it's progressing nicely," says Bigley, adding that he is impressed with the city's efforts to bring the complex to fruition.

A fisherman himself, he declines to comment on the ban. City officials say Otts had nothing to do with it. The City Council approved the measure in August, after public hearings that, perhaps surprisingly, drew only one objector.

The council took the action after vandalism and other problems on the pier were reported to police by former Mayor Bob Bevan and several other residents; unappetizing debris included bait scraps and fish carcasses.

"Freedom Pier was never designed for fishing," says Bevan, an aide to the City Council and Mayor Bill James. "We probably have more places to fish than any city our size in the country."

Like the one about 200 yards south of Freedom Pier, in adjacent Proprietors Park.

"That pier is specifically designed for fishing," Bevan says. "Now they all want to fish on Freedom Pier, but Freedom Pier is designed for walking and sitting and watching the beautiful sunset."

But if there are plenty of places to fish, why are some anglers up in arms?

Opponents of the ban, chatting with me or posting on Cleary's Notebook (cnbnews.net), say people who fish are being penalized for the misdeeds of a few, many of whom aren't visiting Freedom Pier to fish. They say the city should have installed a video surveillance system to protect its investment.

The "No fishing" sign that was posted at Freedom Pier, even before the final vote to approve the ban, struck a nerve, too. Anglers say they are being singled out for exclusion from a place they and other taxpayers paid for. And the Proprietors Park pier, they say, is too small for fishing.

Also worth noting: With just 11,500 people in less than three square miles, Gloucester City is in actuality a small town, politically and otherwise. And Cleary's website, as well as the Gloucester City News, the weekly of which he is publisher emeritus, is certainly helping keep the issue alive.

Rachel Oehlert is unfamiliar with either the news coverage or the ban, so she's surprised when I tell her about it. "It's very disturbing," she says, "because to keep the kids off the streets with all the drugs that are going on, you want to have something active for them to do."

(Oehlert is on to something: Gov. Christie on Friday signed into law a program called "Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs" to encourage New Jersey youngsters to get into the sport.) Let's credit the state with having the best of intentions; the same goes for the Gloucester City Council when it approved the ban.

But security, not fishing, is the issue on Freedom Pier.

Gloucester should lift the ban and lower the boom on the jerks responsible for trashing its future.


Contact Kevin RiordanĀ  at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan.

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