When you load up your fishing poles for another red snapper season on the Gulf Coast, you might be approached by two of the Marine Resource Departments newest and furriest Code Enforcement Officers while out on the water.
The department just finished training two spaniels who know how to sniff out fish or filets being stored illegally on boats. "One of the challenges we have is that you can legally catch fish and have the fish onboard, then you put it back in the water. That's legal, but the smell of the fish is still going to be on the boat," said Scott Bannon, Chief of Enforcement for Marine Resources. "Does the dog know that this was just the scent of a legally caught and released fish? Or, are there other fish on board? The master trainer from Florida Wildlife Commission said, 'yes the dog can tell the difference.'"
Bannon said the idea to use dogs came to him from a growing problem of fisherman trying to smuggle fish because they're unhappy with the shorter seasons and smaller bag limits. "It's just like a narcotics dog. If people wrap it[fish] with grease or duct tape, or coffee grounds, these dogs have that same ability to go through those multiple layers," Bannon said. "Auburn's Canine Science Department Center actually selected the breed for their ability, and they're commonly used in Great Britan as bomb dogs and drug dogs."
The dogs finished training in February and have started going out on calls. "They get a lot of smiles," Officer Lena Phillips said. "At first, people think that we're going to pull out a german shepard, and then you see their face light up when they see one of the spaniels."
Bannon said they specifically chose the breed because it's not intimidating. He said their main objective is to deter the illegal activity before it happens and to speed up the inspection process officers have to do anyway. "We understand that people are not happy about the short seasons or the lower bag limits, so we want to deter the illegal behavior ahead of time," Bannon said. "We don't want to go through every person's boat and inconvenience them. The dogs speed that process up significantly."
Bannon said the dogs can identify red snapper and several other species of game fish that remain classified.