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The boat launch parking lot was practically devoid of life, the campground at Westside Regional Park nearly empty, despite the clear, crisp autumn weather that came with the sunrise Wednesday morning.

But come this weekend, the start of the recreational crab fishing season promises to draw a mob of folks from near and far, eager to get first dibs on the crop of Dungeness crab waiting off-shore.

The increasing popularity of sport crab fishing and its role in providing clues on the outlook for the commercial crabbing season, set to begin two weeks later, makes the Saturday opener pivotal for people in Bodega Bay, many of whose lives are tied to the sea.

"It will be just overrun," said Westside Regional Park camp host Gary Swasey, "and we'll be turning people away who decide spur-of-the-moment in Sacramento, 'Hey, let's go over and get some crab.'"

Kayakers, party boats, aluminum skiffs and larger sport vessels will join the rush to sea — weather permitting — while others can be expected to pack the shoreline with nets and gear for use closer to shore, said California Fish and Wildlife Warden Tiffany Stinson.

Swasey, who was hosting at Doran Park this time last year, recalled counting 25 kayakers with crab traps just off the jetty at one point in the early hours of the 2012 sport season and saw people with flashlights crawling over the rocks at 2 a.m. to get their crab pots dropped.

"It's a pretty big deal," Stinson said.

The season officially starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, at which point licensed fishermen can begin dropping pots targeting the prized crustaceans.

Recreational boats are permitted to take male or female crabs, as long as they are at least 5 3/4 inches from edge-to-edge, measured across the shortest distance just inside the lateral points on each side, Stinson said.

Each person on a boat is permitted to catch 10 a day, though he or she can only possess 10 at any given time, so it would be illegal, for instance, for four people who came for the weekend to leave after two days with 80 crabs.

Peter Kalvass, senior environmental scientist out of the Fish and Wildlife office in Fort Bragg, where the commercial season starts Dec. 1 or later, said the recreational Dungeness crab catch accounts for 5 percent or less of the total — a relatively small amount, though he said Bodega Bay is an especially busy sport fishing port.

The size and quality of the catch this weekend and over the ensuing days will likely be the best predictor of what can be expected when the commercial season starts up along the Sonoma Coast and points south.

Commercial skippers, the source for most crab-lovers, say they're expecting a down year after several above-average seasons, including a banner 2011-12 season in which the statewide catch topped a record 31.5 million pounds, according to state Fish and Wildlife.

The year before was nearly as good, the statewide 27.5 million pounds worth about $13.2 million to the Sonoma County economy, according to the county crop report. Last year's commercial landing of 24.2 million pounds in California more heavily favored the area north of Point Arena by more than 3-to-2. All three years ranked in the state's top five, Fish and Wildlife said.

And despite the laws of supply and demand, the price has been good, as well, in part because of markets opening in China, said Chuck Wise, who just retired at 72 after decades in a boat and service as president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen's Marketing Association.

But judging from the under-sized crab thrown back in the water by commercial fishermen pulling in their gear at the end of last season, "it's going to be a down cycle," said current association president Chuck Cappotto.

Though the official, Fish and Wildlife-monitored quality test traps hadn't gone out yet to get a read on the Sonoma Coast crab populations, some "unofficial tests" to which several fishermen alluded were less than stellar, they said.

"I'm hoping that I'm wrong about this year," longtime fisherman Chris Lawson said, "but it's not going to be one of those years you're going to put the kids through college on."

For the 60 or so commercial boat owners in Bodega Bay, the underwhelming forecast may contribute to tensions over the sport fishing season, which provides recreational fishermen a two-week head-start and greater latitude than commercial vessels. Commercial folks can only take males Dungeness crab, for instance, and only those at least 6 1/4 inches across.

They also complain that the year-round recreational rock and red crab season means any sports folks willing to fudge on the law a bit — and there are some, fishermen and state wardens say — can lay their traps for Dungeness crab before the season starts and simply say they're targeting some other kind. That problem is circumvented for the commercial industry by a 30-day break during which all crab pots have to pulled in before the Nov. 15 commercial Dungeness season starts. There is no such break for sport fishermen.

There are also concerns about the fact that sport crabbers don't have any limits on how many traps they can use, even as commercial boat owners head into the season with a new, seven-tiered pot limit themselves.

Those with the largest landings over the 2003-to-2008 timeframe are permitted up to 500 traps under the new law, while those in the bottom tier can have 175 — all specially marked and attached to tagged buoys.

The idea, supported by local fishermen, is to prevent huge boats from the north from swooping in with 1,500 traps, removing large numbers of crabs from the Sonoma Coast then moving onto territories with later seasons. But locals still worry the tiered system unfairly favors some over others.

Some sport vessels, meanwhile, are rigged with increasingly sophisticated, automated mechanisms that permit recreational fishermen to pull up more crab than they might otherwise, though they must still abide by the limits, Fish and Wildlife Capt. Steve Riske said.

But trap limits, gear restrictions and other rules could be coming down the pike, Fish and Wildlife personnel said.

"The sportsmen take a tremendous amount of product out of this area here," said commercial skipper Dan Kammerer, who fears loose regulation of recreational fishing strengthens the allure of behind-the-scenes trading.

"There's something definitely wrong with this picture here," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.