On Dec. 17, Northeast scallopers received a nice little early Christmas present in the form of a court victory. The next question is whether Santa Claus can nudge U.S. Commerce Department officials to release a second round of federal disaster aid to the region's struggling groundfishermen.

The scallopers' gift comes courtesy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which ruled in the industry's favor in Oceana's challenge to NMFS's biological opinion for the fishery. The court gave Oceana the figurative lump of coal in the Christmas stocking, finding for NMFS and scallopers on every major challenge.

Oceana made three major claims in the lawsuit: that NMFS used the wrong Endangered Species Act "jeopardy" standard regarding loggerhead sea turtle takes; that the agency failed to properly consider the impacts of climate change; and that the agency's use of a dredge hour surrogate to determine whether the fishery exceeds industry estimates of 161 turtle takes in a given year was unlawful.

According to the Fisheries Survival Fund, which participated as a Defendant-Intervenor, U.S. District Judge Paul Freidman found against Oceana on all major claims. That means that the biological opinion, which allows the fishery to operate, will remain in place.

The ruling should make the scallop industry's Christmas a little merrier. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, lawmakers are pressing Commerce Department Secretary Penny Pritzker to release $8.3 million in federal disaster aid money for groundfishermen left out of the the first round of relief funds. The initial dispersal of $6.5 million was issued to permit holders.

The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries has crafted a plan to disburse the Bay State's $8.3 million share of the second round of funding, sending its final grant application to NMFS on Oct. 24.

Massachusetts Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Bill Keating are pushing Pritzker to release the funds before the end of this year. They jointly sent a letter to Pritzker in early December outlining the need for the funds to be released.

"The ongoing groundfish disaster has had a huge economic impact on fishing families and communities in Massachusetts. In many cases the financial hardship is now acute," the letter states. "This second portion of money will help crewmen, shoreside businesses and permit holders who did not qualify for the first portion."

Whether the legislators efforts can pry the funds loose remains to be seen. So Santa, how about you find a way to persuade Ms. Pritzker to turn the funds loose? Doing so might make the holiday season at least a little brighter for the families of the region's groundfish harvesters.

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