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."
<NO1><NO>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<NO1><NO>, 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.
"They are tough little buggers," said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who was at Lake Sonoma on Friday.
<NO1><NO>Lake County already has an inspection program. McGuire said Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties are preparing a joint program that will take effect next summer to fight the species. It is expected to cost $60,000 to start.
It will involve boat inspections, probably for a fee of $10 to $15. A sticker will be attached to the boat, along with a band that will go around the boat and be attached to the trailer.
The band would be removed and reattached by inspectors each time the boat is used in Lake Sonoma, Lake Mendocino or Lake Ruth, which is in the jurisdiction of Humboldt County water officials. Boats that arrive with the band removed would have to be reinspected, and boats that fail the inspection would be quarantined.
<NO1><NO>It took six weeks to train Popeye to find zebra and quagga mussels, said DeShon, who also has a business providing dogs to detect contraband in schools.
"Basically it is a huge game of hide and seek. He is looking for his toy," DeShon said. "You are trying to find a dog who is toy- and ball-crazy and turn it into a game."