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North Coast lakes on alert for invasive mussels

  • Popeye uses his highly trained nose to search for the smell of invasive quagga and zebra mussels on the fishing boat of Windsor resident Sean Headden during a voluntary check Friday at Lake Sonoma. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Popeye, a gregarious 4-year-old chocolate lab, walked quickly around the fishing boat near the Lake Sonoma access ramp Friday, sniffing for any scent of a quagga or zebra mussel.

“Everything has a distinct odor, and he is trained to know that one,” said Debi DeShon, Popeye's trainer and owner of Mussel Dogs, located in the town of Denair near Modesto. “They don't smell like trout or abalone.”

The invasive species, originating in eastern Europe, already have infested and forced the closure of lakes on the East Coast and in Nevada and Southern California, where they have clogged pipes, encrusted piers and boat hulls and caused engines to overheat.

As filter feeders, the mussels deplete the oxygen in the water, causing other fisheries to collapse, state fish and wildlife experts have said.

Popeye will be at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino this weekend as part of a voluntary boat inspection program in preparation for a mandatory inspection program to be implemented next summer.

“This is a preview of coming attractions, of what they can expect when they come to California,” said Joel Miller, an Army Corps of Engineers ranger.

Lance Durling of Santa Rosa, who has fished the lake every week for six years, welcomed the inspection.

“Great idea and I fully endorse it,” Durling said. “It is not an inconvenience. If everybody got the same program, we would be able to solve the problem.”

The idea of closing Lake Sonoma “is the worst. This is my favorite lake,” Durling said.

Neither type of mussel was found Friday during the inspection of 17 boats.

The pests are the size of a pinhead as juveniles and can grow to be an inch long as adults. They can live in water in boat engines or in bilges, which is how they are transported from lake to lake.

The mussels also can live up to 30 days out of water by hiding in boat crevices or places where they can't get knocked off of a moving boat.

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