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Skippers began setting their crab pots off the Sonoma Coast on Thursday, the eve of the commercial Dungeness crab season, despite windy offshore conditions that kept much of the Bodega Bay fishing fleet in port.

Unless the weather worsens, larger boats should be ready to begin harvesting the delectable crustaceans at 12:01 a.m. Friday, just in time to get crab on the table this weekend.

"We're expecting crab to be into our stores on Saturday, weather permitting," said Teejay Lowe, chief executive of G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. "Dungeness crab is a Sonoma County institution."

If results from the local sport crab season that started Nov. 2 are any indication, this year's batch of crab will be large and meaty, said Rick Powers, captain of the New Sea Angler, one of the area's larger party boats.

"The crabs are probably the best quality crabs that I've seen in many years," Powers said, noting many have been two pounds or more apiece. "Every trip has produced full limits of excellent quality, large Dungeness crabs."

But commercial fishermen are predicting a smaller catch this year, based on early reports and the number of small crab observed as the last season wrapped up.

State rules allowed commercial crews to begin setting pots at 6 a.m. Thursday and to pull them out as early as 12:01 a.m. Friday, weather permitting.

About three dozen commercial crab boats reportedly anchored in Drake's Bay overnight Wednesday to avoid tricky winds exiting Bodega Bay on Thursday. But in Bodega Bay, many "elected to pass on it today," said Dan Kammerer, whose vessel, Bernice, was among them.

Larger boats were on the water, however, among them, the 46-foot Haida Queen, which launched from Drake's Bay.

"Beginning of crab season, a lot of boats are out," its skipper, Joe Mantua, said by phone from somewhere north of Point Reyes. "You gotta try to get your share."

Being quick out of the gate is especially important in what many commercial fisherman say could be a lean year, at least compared to the blockbuster seasons of two and three years ago.

The 2013 season serves as a partial test for new limits on the number of crab pots each of the state's 569 commercial fishing crews can use to harvest crab.

The rules are based on a seven-tiered system devised by a task force of fisherman and other stakeholders. They allow each fishing boat to carry from 175 to 500 pots, depending on how many crabs they landed from 2003 to 2008.

Modeled after limits enacted in Oregon and Washington, the new rules are the result of legislation authored by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who once decried the "race for crab" at the onset of each new season. The old system, she said, created a "derby dynamic" that put fishermen at risk and created huge price fluctuations.

The rules are designed to create a more sustainable fishery and fishing economy, in part by preventing large boats from Oregon and Washington — some with upwards of 2,000 pots — from swooping in to harvest vast quantities of crab from the California's Central Coast before their states' seasons start later this fall.

But the total number of traps permitted in the water at any given time — 174,200 — is roughly unchanged under the new rules.

The effect of the new rules is uncertain.

Fifty-five vessels are permitted the maximum 500 traps. That's still a lot of competition for local skippers, according to Bodega Bay fishermen, particularly since smaller boats can be kept in harbor by adverse weather.

"There's a lot of boats here," said Mantua, "and if the average one has 400 to 450 (pots) there's still a tremendous amount of traps out there."

There's also concern that some fishermen in the mid-tier range will be using more pots than they have in previous years, pushing up the overall catch beyond what regulators might hope, several skippers said.

The whole system is set up to be re-evaluated after two years — a "good thing," said Chuck Cappotto, president of the Fishermen's Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.

"I think the jury's still out," he said.