Marlin Open Rule Change Aimed At Helping Fuel Costs

OCEAN CITY – With a little over a week before the start of the 2008 White Marlin Open, it remains to be seen if the soaring fuel prices and other economic factors will keep the number of boats participating down this year, but tournament officials are taking a proactive approach to lure those captains and boats still on the fence.

The White Marlin Open’s website predicts a record number of boats leading to record payouts for the 2008 event, but organizers acknowledge that is just typical pre-tournament hype posted this time every year. Last year’s tournament attracted 398 boats and the 2006 version lured a record 449 boats, but reaching those figures would likely be miraculous this year given current fuel prices, uncertainty about the economy and above average tropical storm activity for this early in the summer.

Nonetheless, organizers remain confident the excitement surrounding the week-long event, which has become the highlight of the summer season in Ocean City, coupled with the lure of the big cash payouts – last year’s winning white marlin earned $1.4 million – will drive the number of boats participating up in the next week or so. As of last weekend, the number of boats pre-registered for the tournament hovered in the double digits, but the majority of the participants typically wait until the last week to officially sign up.

It’s no secret the offshore fishing industry is hurting this summer with diesel fuel prices at the docks hovering around the $4.50 per gallon mark. Many of the charter boats have adjusted their base rates to reflect the increase while others have added a fuel surcharge based on how far they travel for their prey and how much fuel it takes to get there.

The result has been fewer charters in general and many of the charters that are booking trips are opting to stay closer to shore to target tuna, dolphin and other species. Whether or not that carries over to the White Marlin Open remains to be seen, but tournament officials are taking steps to ensure those still sitting on the fence have options. This week, WMO officials announced a rule change aimed specifically at rising fuel prices.

In order to help boats participating in the tournament conserve fuel and not cut into their fishing time, the tournament has amended the rule regarding start times, allowing boats to pass the sea buoys at the Ocean City, Indian River and Cape May Inlets no earlier than 3:30 a.m. rather than the 5 a.m. allowed in years past. The concept is to allow boats to run at a slower, more economical speed to reach their fishing destinations, reducing their fuel consumption by as much as a third and, thus, saving money on the fuel bill.

White Marlin Open founder and director Jim Motsko said this week the rule change is an effort to attract boats concerned with the fuel costs of participating in the tournament this year. Permitting the boats to leave earlier will allow them to reach their destinations at about the same time they usually would while spending about a third on fuel.

“We figured we would do our part,” he said. “This will help all of the boats that choose to take advantage of the earlier start time conserve fuel. We need all the help we can get. If this gets 10 more boats into the tournament, it will have done what we hoped it would do.”

Motsko said advanced registration for the tournament has been tepid, but remained confident the ranks would fill in during the week before the tournament. However, he said matching last year’s number of boats would likely be a long shot.

“So far, everything looks like its going to be okay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t expect to hit what we hit last year in terms of the number of boats, but I’m pretty confident we won’t see a dramatic drop-off.”

If the turnouts for the early season tournaments in and around the resort area are any indication, officials can expect at least some drop-off this year. The Ocean City Shark Tournament saw its number of boats drop from 83 in 2007 to 61 this year. Similarly, the Ocean City Tuna Tournament saw its numbers drop from 139 in 2007 to 128 this year.

In other cases, the drop-off has been more pronounced. For example, the Mid-Atlantic Tuna Tournament in Cape May last week saw its numbers decline by half from 88 boats last year compared to 44 this year. Other big tournaments in Florida and the Bahamas have also seen their numbers cut in half this year.

Clearly, the drop-offs reported for many of the tournaments are directly related to increased fuel costs. The cost of a typical offshore charter leaving Ocean City this summer ranges from around $1,600 to $1,800 on the low side to as much as $3,000 on the high side with the price in most cases commensurate with the size of the boat.

Most of the big boats that fish the White Marlin Open are closer to the back end of the price scale, and they fish three out of five days during the event. The entry fee for the tournament is modest at $1,050, but to cover all of the different entry levels, and thus get a shot at the big payouts, boats and teams of anglers often have to lay out over $10,000.