Popeye the dog is protecting a SLO County reservoir from these tiny invaders

An 8-year-old chocolate Labrador named Popeye is patrolling Lake Nacimiento this weekend, using his sensitive sniffer to protect the reservoir from a dangerous invader.

He and his friends — Nemo, Captain, Noah and Sinbad — are the Mussel Dogs, a group of Labs, a mutt and a German Shepard specially trained to inspect boats for invasive species and protect California’s waterways from quagga and zebra mussels.

The aquatic hitchhikers, which are native to the lakes of southern Russia and Ukraine, can latch onto boats to move into lakes and rivers, where they wreck havoc on the ecosystem and infrastructure, including boat motors. They’ve spread to hundreds of lakes in dozens of states.

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Popeye the dog is trained to sniff out invasive zebra mussels at Lake Nacimiento. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“(Mussels) proliferate like crazy,” said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of the San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department. “They can reduce the capacity of a pipe and plug it up.”

“They’re filter feeders,” he added. “They remove so much food from the bottom of the food chain, they can essentially cause the other species in the lake to reduce in population.”

Thankfully, the mussels haven’t made their way to San Luis Obispo County lakes yet and hundreds of human volunteers have been trained to assure that they don’t.

Lake Nacimiento is especially high risk for the mollusks, both because of its aquatic environment and because hundreds of boats can launch into the reservoir at more than 40 ramps on summer weekends.

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Debi DeShon and her mussel-sniffing canine Popeye inspect a boat at Lake Nacimiento for invasive aquatic species such as quagga and zebra mussels. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“It only takes one vessel for these guys to come in,” said Danielle Ruedas, San Luis Obispo County’s mussel prevention coordinator. “We preach to everybody — even if a boat hasn’t been on infested waters, it has to be clean, drained and dry.”

Boaters caught on the lake without a signed inspection form could be fined up to $2,000 and charged with a misdemeanor.

Veligers, infant mussels in the microscopic phase, can survive 30 days in a damp environment.

“Once they get in our lake, that’s it,” Ruedas said.

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Zebra mussels are scooped from Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, where they carpet the lake’s bottom. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Around 280 volunteers are trained to screen boats entering Lake Nacimiento, which can lead to long wait times on busy weekends.

The work goes faster when the Mussel Dogs are on the job. They were previously at the lake on July 21 and 22.

“Everybody loves the dogs,” said Debi DeShon, who owns the dogs. “Dogs can smell where we can’t see.”

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Debra DeShon, owner of Mussel Dogs, demonstrates how she has trained her dogs to find mussels on watercraft in Denair, California, in August 2016. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com
Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan