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Some of the crab catch sits on ice on T Dock at the Small Craft Harbor in Santa Cruz.

SANTA CRUZ — Commercial crab season kicked off early Thursday with calm weather and a healthy haul from some of the first boats that returned to Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor.

The crew of the 50-foot Sea Breeze set traps near Año Nuevo Island on Wednesday, came back to port to sleep for a few hours, then retrieved them early Thursday, said Joe Tomasello, the boat's captain.

Mild weather and a lack of swell and wind made for smooth conditions, he said.

"The weather was so nice, we were just stoked," Tomasello said. "There was some crabs out there, but you have to work for 'em."

They collected hundreds of pounds of crabs with about 16 pounds of Dungeness crabs per pot, he said. It was less than the roughly 50 pounds per pot he said they caught in 2010 — although a wholesaler said the quality of the first catch this year looked good.

About noon Thursday, Tomasello and deckhands Branden Goering and Daniel Obert put dozens of crawling crabs into ice water-filled vats. They carefully lifted the vats on to the dock with a crane and weighed their catch.

Tomasello noted he saw fewer crab boats in the water for the season's start this year, which is what fishermen at Pillar Point predicted earlier this month.

Large boats often motor south from Washington, Oregon and Northern California to as far as San Luis Obispo in mid-November. This year, fishermen said they might be more optimistic about northern waters and stay put.

Monday, fishermen and buyers agreed to an opening wholesale price of $3 per pound of crab, up from $2.25 last year.

In 2011, a price dispute delayed the start of the commercial crabbing season until after Thanksgiving.

At the Santa Cruz harbor Thursday, a small crowd gathered to watch the first boats unload the tasty crustaceans.

Ashley Obert came with her 4-year-old son to watch her husband, Daniel, work.

"It's always exciting when you see them pull up for crab season," she said.

"It's a whole different world down here, it's great. It teaches (children) good things about working hard and being able to appreciate where your food comes from."

For Aldo Canepa, 89, who watched the crab boats arrive Thursday, the scene reminded him of his days as a commercial fisherman before World War II. His father was a commercial fisherman as well and he had been around the water his whole life.

Canepa said they used nets rather than the circular, black-rimmed pots that are now common. Crabs were sold $1.50 per dozen in those days, he said.

"We used to haul them in by hand. That's a lot of work pulling those nets in," Canepa said.