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Pots for the upcoming commercial Dungeness crab season are stacked along Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 in San Francisco. The recreational season for Dungeness crab opened Saturday with the commercial season beginning on Nov. 15. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA -- A timely deal on wholesale prices gave Dungeness crab fishermen some peace of mind, but the start of the commercial season was as adrenaline-crazed as ever.

The scene was chaotic Wednesday morning at Pillar Point Harbor north of Half Moon Bay as fishermen piled their boats with crab traps and raced to drop them in the ocean ahead of Thursday's season opener. The arrival of five ships bearing more than 300 tons of squid overwhelmed the harbor's loading and unloading capacity, resulting in delays and short fuses.

"It's been pretty tough," said Larry Fortado, owner of Three Captains Sea Products, a wholesale fish buyer at the end of Johnson Pier. "But we'll get through it."

Fishermen and buyers agreed Monday to an opening wholesale price of $3 a pound for crab, up from $2.25 last year, when a price dispute delayed the start of the season until after Thanksgiving, denying Bay Area gourmands a traditional holiday delicacy. The higher price reflects in part a presumption that there will be fewer crab to catch than there were last season, which set a record for total haul in California.

"I think that's why the buyers gave us more money," said Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, "because there's going to be fewer crabs caught."

California fishermen unloaded nearly 32 million pounds of Dungeness crab during the 2011-12 season, up from slightly more than 27.5 million pounds in 2010-11. Those are the highest totals in state history, according to California Department of Fish and Game records.

The recent boom in the crab population is the result of ideal ocean conditions when those crabs hatched several years ago, said Pete Kalvass, a senior environmental scientist with the Department of Fish and Game. But crab abundance is cyclical, so leaner years are on the horizon.

"We're not going to stay up here," said Kalvass, referring to the record-breaking totals of 2010 and 2011. "It just doesn't happen."

Local fishermen say there are fewer boats around this year from Northern California, Oregon and Washington due to optimistic predictions for the fisheries up there. Massive boats from the north typically swoop down for the Nov. 15 start of crab season in the central region extending south from the Mendocino-Sonoma county line down to around San Luis Obispo. Those boats then return north to catch more crab when that season starts Dec. 1. The northern season has been delayed this year until Dec. 15 at the earliest because the crabs are immature.

The forecast is a bit dimmer for the Central Coast, based partly on reports from recreational crabbers. Fishermen said they'll know soon enough for themselves how the season will shape up.

"Let's hope there's crab," shouted Puffin co-captain Bob Transano as his boat pulled away from the dock. "And let's hope the price holds."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.