OCEAN CITY – Hundreds of thousands of sport fishing enthusiasts will cram into the resort late next week with the arrival of the annual White Marlin Open, but despite some inherent problems with the tournament’s traditional venue, steps have been taken to ensure it remains a uniquely Ocean City event.
Rumors have persisted for years the annual White Marlin Open, now in its 34th year, would some day move to a new location likely somewhere in West Ocean City where big venues such as Sunset Marina and the Ocean City Fishing Center could more readily accommodate the thousands of spectators that cram into the daily weigh-ins each day during tournament week. However, with his lease at Harbour Island on 14th Street in downtown Ocean City set to expire this year, tournament founder and director Jim Motsko recently reached a new agreement with the community to keep the tournament there through 2010 and likely beyond.
“We’ve reached a new lease agreement to keep the tournament at Harbour Island through 2010,” said Motsko this week. “We ironed out some of the details and worked through some issues and we have no intention of going anywhere else. It has been there from the beginning and we have every intention of keeping it there for years to come.”
From modest beginnings in 1974, the annual event has grown over the decades to become the world’s largest billfish tournament, featuring hundreds of boats, thousands of anglers, tens of thousands of spectators and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. Just 56 boats competed for $20,000 in prize money in the inaugural event in 1974, while 428 boats vied for over $3 million in prize money in the 33rd edition last year.
While Harbour Island has some obvious shortcomings in terms of handling the throngs of people that cram into the community every year during Marlin week, it will remain the host for the foreseeable future and likely far beyond.
Parking is always an issue, and it’s often difficult to cram into Harbour Island with thousands of others of sport fishing enthusiasts hoping to catch a glimpse of a million dollar plus fish, but most are Open veterans are accustomed to the drill, according to Motsko.
“Those things are nothing that can’t be overcome,” he said. “In some ways, it’s all part of the charm of White Marlin Open week in Ocean City.”
The importance of keeping the White Marlin Open in Ocean City is not lost on the city’s leaders.
Mayor Rick Meehan, who has the unique perspective of living in Harbour Island, said this week the tournament is one of the highlights of the summer season and the city has taken steps to make sure it does its part to keep it in Ocean City.
“Absolutely, it’s a tradition in Ocean City,” Meehan said. “It’s the perfect venue because it’s so accessible to so many people. That whole area comes alive during White Marlin Open week.”
Actually, the whole town comes alive during tournament week, and while it is the height of the summer, having the White Marlin Open in Ocean City is certainly a big part of why the first full week of August is typically the biggest of the year for the resort, according to Meehan.
“If you talk to the local business owners, especially the restaurants, they will tell you it is the busiest week of the summer,” he said. “Many credit the White Marlin Open. It’s not just the captains and the anglers and everybody associated with the event from a fishing standpoint, it also means hundreds of thousands of fishing enthusiasts.”
From a personal standpoint as a resident of Harbour Island, Meehan said having the community turned upside down for one week each summer has become a way of life for most residents.
“It’s a great event for Harbour Island and most residents just work their schedules around it and enjoy it,” he said. “Now I don’t know that they would be happy with it 52 weeks a year, but for one week, it’s something everybody lives with.”
Meehan said the family atmosphere surrounding the tournament is consistent with the town’s family-friendly image.
“People start showing up at Harbour Island early and wait with small children for a chance to see big fish weighed at the scale,” he said. “It’s a very family-oriented event, which is why it’s so popular. It’s great for the whole downtown area because from there, families disperse to the restaurants, the Boardwalk and other attractions.”
Meehan said it was important the town do everything it can to keep the tournament in the resort, which is known as the “White Marlin Capital of the World.” For example, the town offers shuttle service to the venue from other areas of the resort such as the Convention Center parking lot, for example.
“We’re very aware of the importance of this event and the city will continue to do what it can to better accommodate it,” he said.
The tournament itself has also made adjustments over the years to ease the burden on the host community. For example, boat slips in the resort are always at a premium during Marlin week, but many of the participating boats fish out of other areas such as Indian River in Delaware and Cape May in New Jersey and bring their catch into Harbour Island only if it has an opportunity to get on the leader board.