Man’s best friend is much more than just a co-pilot on the boat at Lake Nacimiento; canines are the gatekeepers making sure invasive mussels don’t wreak havoc in the water.
Lake staff check in visitors and their vessels, issuing them a permit certifying their watercraft is mussel-free.
But before boaters take off for the lake, Popeye the dog has to give the all clear.
"They find the mussels and do a great job, even better than a human can do because they can smell where we can’t see," Mussel Dogs Owner Debi Deshon said.
In the same way dogs are trained to detect drugs and bombs, Deshon trains dogs like Popeye to sniff out the invasive species. Canine sense of smell is so great, it can detect the early stages of mussel development on watercraft, which is microscopic.
"Zebra mussels are highly invasive and once they get infested into this lake, it drastically affects the economy, water quality and recreation that we have here at Lake Nacimiento," San Luis Obispo County Mussel Prevention Coordinator Danielle Ruedas said.
The miniscule mussels can have a dramatic impact; just one can disrupt the entire aquatic ecosystem.
"The population of them would grow tremendously and we’d probably have to shut down the lake," Ruedas said.
There’s a lot of responsibility riding on Popeye, but to him, the job is just pure fun.
"We look for an absolutely ball crazy dog and take that and turn it into a big game of hide and seek," Deshon said. "So, in his mind, he’s just looking for his ball, when he smells – in his mind – the ball, which is mussels, he sits down and gets his toy."
Deshon said just last month her other mussel dog, Noah, discovered aquatic hitchhikers on a vessel entering Lake Mendocino.
"On any given day at any given time, a boat can come through with mussels on them and if they’re alive then we could be spreading these mussels to northern California," Deshon said.
Park rangers said they’ve already written multiple citations this year for people who have not obtained their mussel-check permit. That fine can be up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor.