The commercial season for Dungeness crab opens Thursday, with the prospects of crabs that are loaded with meat, but fishermen are expecting fewer of them than in the past two years, when records were set.

"It doesn't look like as good as the past two years," said Chuck Cappotto, president of the Fisherman's Marketing Association of Bodega Bay. "It is difficult to tell, but from sport fishing reports, the abundance is not anywhere as good as the last two years."

Last year, a record 31.6 million pounds of crab were caught in California, valued at $94.8 million, the biggest catch in 100 years.

In 2010, 27.5 million pounds were caught, valued at $56.8 million.

The sport fishing season opened Nov. 3, with reports of catches good north of the Gualala River but sparse to the south.

At Bodega Bay, the decks of many of the commercial fleet are piled high with crab pots.

"We're all ready to go, we finished the gear this morning and now we're doing miscellaneous small jobs," Chuck Wise of Bodega Bay said last week.

Fishermen are able to set pots beginning at 6 a.m. Wednesday but cannot pull them up until Thursday when the season opens from the Gualala River to Morro Bay.

The opening could be delayed if fishermen and buyers are unable to reach an agreement on price, Bodega Bay fisherman Chris Lawson said.

Fishermen are asking for $3 a pound and are trying to have a uniform price for the ports of Bodega Bay, San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.

"There should be crabs available Friday, providing the price is negotiated Thursday night," Lawson said. "We have heard a couple of counter-offers for $2.75. Given what the sporties are doing, we feel that $3 is a good price. It looks like the fresh market can absorb everything."

Last year, the price when the season opened was $2.25 a pound but quickly went to $2.50. The average price for the season was $2.99 a pound, according to state Department of Fish and Game statistics.

North of Sonoma County, the opening of the commercial season is Dec. 1 but probably will be delayed to allow crabs more time to grow, said Pete Kalvass, a biologist with Fish and Game in Fort Bragg.

Crabs are required to have the meat be 25 percent of body weight, but crab caught two weeks ago in tests on the northern coast were only 16 to 18 percent, he said.

On the central coast, crabs caught in the tests were at 24 percent, Kalvass said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@