The federal government Thursday declared last year’s shortened crab season on the North Coast a fisheries disaster in the first step toward bringing economic relief to the region’s commercial fleet.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker identified the 2015-16 Dungeness and rock crab fishery as being among nine areas in three states to suffer sudden decreases in volume due to unusual ocean or climate conditions.

On the North Coast, the start of last year’s season was delayed when tests of sample crabs showed an algae-produced neurotoxin called domoic acid at levels above federal safety standards.

The annual statewide catch valued at $60 million was reduced by a third, dealing a major financial blow to fisherman. Now, with the declaration, advocates can turn to Congress to ask for special financial appropriations.

“It’s great news,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who has lobbied along with state officials for a disaster designation. “But it’s only one of two steps that need to happen to get relief.”

Pritzker’s declaration also identified the Yurok tribe’s chinook salmon fishery on the Klamath River as well as fisheries in Alaska and Washington.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, an agency of the Department of Commerce, administers disaster assistance under two statutes that allow a governor or elected representative of an affected fishing community to request a fishery disaster determination.

“The Commerce Department and NOAA stand with America’s fishing communities,” Samuel D. Rauch III, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs, NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement. “We are proud of the contributions they make to the nation’s economy, and we recognize the sacrifices they are forced to take in times of environmental hardship.

“We are committed to helping these communities recover and achieve success in the future.”

If Congress appropriates funds to address these fishery failures, NOAA will work with Congress and affected states and tribes to develop a spending plan to support activities that would restore the fishery, prevent a similar failure and assist affected communities.

Last year’s problems were compounded by a difficult salmon season and more limits on crab fishing this year.

Lorne Edwards, president of the Fisherman’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, said members caught 43 percent less crab than average. As a result, some have fallen on hard times or left the industry all together.

Fleets to the north from Fort Bragg to Crescent City fared even worse, he said.

“It’s definitely been a struggle,” Edwards said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.