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Meet Kevin Wark

Kevin helping researchers learn more about Atlantic sturgeon migrations and keep monkfish fishermen on the water. Photo credit: Dewayne Fox, Delware State University

Testing fishing gear to reduce monkfish bycatch with Mate Michael Lohr.  Photo credit: Dewayne Fox, Delaware State University.

A little over a year ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. For New Jersey commercial gillnet fisherman Kevin Wark, the year has been one spent dealing with both professional hardship and personal loss. Kevin is owner/operator of the fishing vessel Dana Christine out of Barnegat Light, New Jersey, and a member of the Garden State Seafood Association.

Professionally, the storm cut into Kevin’s monkfish season as well as his croaker and lucrative menhaden fishing season. The bait fishery for menhaden was developed by Kevin as a cottage industry, working with select tackle stores. Superstorm Sandy effectively ended the recreational fishery for striped bass just as it was getting underway. This meant there was no need for bait, even if Kevin had been able to get out to catch them.

But more devastating than the professional losses were the personal ones. When the storm hit, it destroyed Kevin’s parent’s home in Ship Bottom – a home that his father had built, himself, nearly 50 years ago. Shortly afterward, Kevin’s father passed away. 

“It’s been a struggle getting through these past several months,” said Kevin. “It really took a toll on my Dad when he lost the house. He just never recovered from it. “

Committed to the memory of his father and unwilling to let the storm get the best of him, Kevin took on the task of rebuilding. He rebuilt both his family home and a commercial property that his father had left him.  

“I usually fish for monkfish in the fall and early winter,” said Kevin. “But in order to repair the damage to my family properties, I had to quit fishing early. I also lost time I typically spend repairing my fishing nets and other gear to get ready for the next fishing season.”

According to Kevin, what saved his fishing business was the fact that he didn’t just rely on one species.  Active involvement in cooperative research also helped Kevin augment his fishing business.

“Starting around November, I went fishing for dogfish and skates. In the spring, I was involved in sturgeon sampling and then when the fall came around, I was able to fish for monkfish, croaker and menhaden again.” 

Depending on the season - and the market demand – Kevin also targets weakfish, bluefish, shad and an occasional bonito.

For the past three years, with funding from NOAA Fisheries, Kevin has worked closely with Delaware State University Research Scientist, Dewayne Fox, to test “sturgeon friendly gillnets.” These nets are used by the monkfish fishery, to reduce the accidental capture of threatened and endangered Atlantic sturgeon. 

“Over the years, Kevin and I have become very good friends as well as colleagues,” said Dewayne. “I’d actually trace the roots of bycatch reduction work back to some of Kevin's original gillnet designs. Kevin has been a big proponent of sturgeon conservation and is a true pragmatist in his approach.”  

From 2005-2009 Kevin designed nets for the sampling program. In 2009, Kevin began working collaboratively for 20-25 days a year off the coast of Delaware to collect adult Atlantic sturgeon. More than 500 adult Atlantic sturgeon were sampled over this time providing more information on the animal and its movements in the ocean.

“It’s great to work with Kevin because he has the interest, determination and ability to suggest changes that ultimately helped us develop an effective gear design which reduced sturgeon bycatch,  but still maintained sufficient levels of monkfish,” said Henry Milliken, NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “Kevin’s enthusiasm is contagious and that’s probably why he is so successful at engaging other fishermen in research. It was such a pleasure to work with both him and Dewayne on this research.”

NOAA Fisheries Jason Berthiaume who works with Kevin on the monkfish fishery management plan says that Kevin brings this same pragmatic approach to his work in the fisheries management process.

“Early on in our careers, both my wife and I worked with Kevin as observers. He helped us establish relationships with the local fishermen and taught us so much about the business. In his council work, Kevin is devoted to the long term sustainability of fisheries not just for his own benefit but for the good of the fishing community.”

Kevin serves as an industry advisor to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the New England Council, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on weakfish, shad, monkfish and bluefish.

“It’s really important that fishermen get involved in helping to shape the regulations that will ultimately affect them,” said Kevin.

This year, despite his setbacks, Kevin has remained positive and focused on the big picture. He is truly the consummate commercial fisherman – a survivor and innovator. It’s going to take more than a “Superstorm" to stop him!