Questions About First-Place Billfish Lead To White Marlin Open’s Top Prize Of $2.8M Being Withheld

Questions About First-Place Billfish Lead To White Marlin Open’s Top Prize Of $2.8M Being Withheld
first place white

OCEAN CITY — Exactly two weeks to the day since the one and only qualifying white marlin caught during the 43rd Annual White Marlin Open was hauled up the scale and ultimately awarded $2.8 million, shattering the tournament payout record and potentially setting a world record payout, tournament officials late Tuesday announced there was a potential violation of tournament rules with the big winner and the prize money was being held pending a determination of the proper recipient.

On Tuesday, Aug. 9, angler Phil Heaseley and the crew on the “Kallianassa” out of Naples, Fla. pulled into host Harbour Island with a white marlin to weigh shortly after the scale opened for business at 4 p.m. The big white was hauled up the scale and topped out at 76.5 pounds, and Heaseley and the “Kallianassa” cozied into the top spot on the leaderboard with the one and only qualifier up to that point early in the tournament.

However, it was only Tuesday and Heaseley and the “Kallianassa” had to sweat out three more days with white marlin practically jumping in the tournament boats during the 2016 WMO during which release records were shattered.

When the dust settled, Heasely and the “Kallianassa” held onto first place. Because the “Kallianassa” ponied up for all added entry levels, and because Heasely caught the one and only qualifier, when the scale officially closed on Friday at 9:15 p.m., the 76.5-pounder ended up being worth $2.8 million, a WMO record for single fish prize money.

However, it now appears the 76.5-pounder might be disqualified. In an official statement released on Tuesday evening, WMO officials said because of potential rules violations, the winning white marlin boat would not be awarded the $2.8 million in prize money and a determination will be made on how to best distribute the winnings per official WMO rules and regulations.

“On August 9, the winning angler in the white marlin category provided catch information for the white marlin, which, as it turned out, would be the sole qualifying white marlin in the tournament,” the statement released reads. “Subsequent investigation as required by the rules and regulations of the White Marlin Open indicated a possible violation of the rules. Accordingly, in an effort to achieve the utmost fairness, the White Marlin Open directors met with independent judges and complete information was provided to the judges for their input with regard to the issue of the potential violation of the rules.”

The statement continues, “After much discussion, and providing evidence of the possible violation of the tournament rules, the judges agreed that the prize would not be awarded to the boat catching the qualifying white marlin, but would, in accordance with the rules of the tournament, be withheld pending the determination of the proper recipient of the prize money.”

The WMO statement, signed by Tournament President Jim Motsko, said tournament officials and independent judges are now in the process of determining the proper recipient of the record prize money in the 2016 White Marlin Open.

“The White Marlin Open strives to obtain the highest integrity and level of transparency in fairness in all of its awards and determination of adherence to the rules and regulations in all cases,” the statement reads. “It is for these reasons that the tournament directors, in coordination with the independent judges in the tournament, have made the determination to withhold the winning prize until it can be ensured that the prize is being paid to the proper recipient thereof.”

WMO officials said no further statements would be released as the directors and the independent judges wade through the process. It is likely premature to speculate on the type and manner of violation that could disqualify the one and only qualifier and record $2.8 million and there numerous rules governing the tournament. For example, the WMO is an angler tournament, meaning only the angler on the rod at the time the fish was hooked may handle it until the fish is boated.

There are also specific rules governing the type of tackle allowed including hooks, along with rules governing trolling and chumming, for example. In addition, the rules are very specific about the allowable distance from the sea buoy in Ocean City and countless other ways in which a winning fish could be later disqualified and speculating any further would be folly until the WMO and its judges issue a final ruling. In addition, each of the winners is subjected to a polygraph exam on the Saturday following the tournament to determine the veracity of the information in the official catch reports, although no immediate problems with the polygraph for the “Kallianassa” were known following the tournament two weeks ago.

There is precedent for anomalies with the post-tournament polygraphs in the White Marlin Open. Following the 2007 WMO, a multi-party civil action was brought in Worcester County Circuit Court to determine the winner of the prize money in the blue marlin category.

Amid confusion over alleged failed or untimely polygraph tests, White Marlin Open organizers in September 2007 filed a complaint of interpleader in Worcester County Circuit Court essentially asking a judge to intercede on their behalf and assess who among the top three winners in that year’s blue marlin division should be awarded the hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

The complaint was filed after it came to light there were irregularities in two polygraph tests taken by the second-place winner and the first-place winner did not take his required polygraph test until after the tournament’s award ceremony. After months of legal wrangling, further complicated by the winner in the tuna division that year laying claim to the blue marlin division prize money, a Worcester County Circuit Court judge ruled the first-place winner in the blue marlin division qualified for the prize money, while the second-place winner was disqualified. As a result, the third-place winner in the blue marlin category that year was granted the second- and third-place blue marlin prize money.

At any rate, it remains to be seen what will happen now that the WMO has issued a statement it is withholding the first-place white marlin money until a review can determine who is entitled to the record prize money. It’s worth noting the rules appear to indicate the white marlin money would defer to the winner in the blue marlin category, which had its own share of intrigue this year.

Angler Jim Conway on the “Get Reel” brought the winning blue marlin to the scale on the tournament’s first day, but there were issues with what turned out to be the one and only qualifier in that division.

The big blue marlin had to be towed in. Somewhere along the trip or doing the handling of it to the docks at Harbour Island, the big blue marlin’s tail separated from the rest of its body, calling into question at least briefly, if it should qualify.

After the requisite measurements were taken and a ruling was made on the tail issue, the big blue was hauled up the scale with a makeshift cradle of sort and topped out at 790 pounds. The debate centered on when the tail was lost and whether “mutilation” occurred and at what point. According to IGFA rules, a fish should be disqualified if mutilation occurs prior to the fish being landed or boated. In this case, WMO officials determined the big blue lost its tail after it was officially landed, likely during the towing process to the scale. The big blue held up as the lone qualifier in the blue marlin division and Conway and the “Get Reel” crew were ultimately awarded $258,995 in prize money.

However, since it was not in the all added entry levels, the big money fell to the first-place tuna, which ended up being worth in excess of $767,000.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.