Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

While many of us have been busy searching for the perfect Christmas gifts these past few weeks, one group at Dauphin Island has been on an unusual quest for a totally different prize – fish fillets.

Nope, there’s no big Christmas fish fry planned. The search for fish fillets is part of an intensive training regimen for the Alabama Marine Resources Division’s new canine program to sniff out violators of state and federal fishing regulations.

Marine Resources (MRD) Chief Enforcement Officer Major Scott Bannon said when MRD’s Enforcement Officers, even with their limited resources, made seven cases against people for hiding fish in one week, he knew there had to be a better way to detect violators.

 “I was sitting in my office thinking about the challenges we’ve had with people hiding fish, filleting them, and how we should approach it,” Bannon said. “I had always been amazed by the way dogs could find drugs and other things. It seemed to me they should be able to find fish. The challenge is that boats smell like fish. If you go out and catch red snapper during the closed season and you throw them back, your boat is still going to smell like red snapper.

Bannon called a master dog trainer with the Florida Wildlife Commission and asked if a dog could be trained to detect fish and/or fish fillets. “He said, ‘You’re looking at it as whether a dog is going to tell if there are fish there. That’s easy. You get the dog to go find the product. That’s two different things, and the dog knows the difference.”

Bannon also heard of a dog used in Minnesota to find fish during that northern state’s peak season, which was ice fishing during the winter. The dog would find hidden caches of fish in snow drifts and other hiding areas.

Bannon contacted the Auburn University School of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Performance Sciences Program, which is training dogs to perform a variety of discovery tasks, including finding explosives and pythons in the Everglades as well as cancer in urine samples.

Bannon traveled to Auburn to express what duties the dogs would need to perform, and that he didn’t want dogs that would intimidate Alabama’s anglers.

“I didn’t want a ‘bite’ dog,” he said. “I didn’t want anything that looked like a ‘bite’ dog, like a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois. And they were too big. I wanted a small dog the officers could pick up. If a boat pulls out of the ramp on a trailer, then the officer would have to pick up the dog to put it on the boat.

“And I wanted it to be friendly because you’re going to be putting it on mom and pop’s boat with the grandkids. Of course, everybody is going to want to say hello to the dog. I want it to be a positive contact, even if the dog finds hidden fish.”

Bannon said he hopes the canine program will eventually become such a deterrent that finding fillets or illegal catches will become a rarity.

“I’ve said we’re going to put up signs with pictures of a dog and a logo that says, ‘Alabama has a dog,’” he said. “When people are offshore and are frustrated with the short seasons and small limits because they’ve spent money on a boat, used their limited number of

vacation days, and they decide they’re going to get all they can, I want it to be in the backs of their minds that Alabama has a dog, and the potential of getting caught is pretty high with a dog.

“I don’t doubt that we’ll make some cases with the dogs, but ultimately, I’d rather not write tickets. Some people are not going to change, but I think the average person would know the odds of getting caught are very high. It’s hard to measure deterrence, but I believe we’ll be able to tell by what people are saying, what we see on Facebook and on the blogs.”

Alabama does allow fish species under state jurisdiction, like speckled trout and redfish, to be filleted on the water as long as the carcasses are kept. In other words, the number of fillets must match with the carcasses in state waters. Boats fishing in federal waters are not allowed to fillet any fish.

“That’s why our primary goal is to find fillets, but the dogs will find whole fish if they’re hiding them,” Bannon said. “We want to inhibit people’s fishing trips as little as possible. In a matter of seconds, the dogs will tell us whether anything is ‘fishy’ or if the ice chest is all they have.

“If we get complaints, we can take the dogs to crew boats or shrimp boats to check those, too. We have harnesses for the dogs to move them from boat to boat.”

Marine Resources’ Enforcement Canine Program consists of two dogs, one in Baldwin County and one in Mobile County. Conservation Enforcement Officer Lena Phillips will handle the Mobile County dog, an English Springer Spaniel named Morgan, while Officer Chris Cox will handle the Baldwin County dog, an English Working Cocker Spaniel named Gaines.

“I told them I wouldn’t handle the dogs but I was going to name them,” Bannon said. “I named them after Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines because they protected the state of Alabama. These dogs are being trained to protect the natural resources of Alabama.”

Marine Resources was able to procure the dogs through funding from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement as part of the Joint Operating Agreement as well as contributions from the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association and the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama.

With the money in place, Auburn’s canine program began the search for the proper dogs. Because the job requires intense drive, Auburn had to search overseas to find suitable prospects. One dog was found in the United Kingdom and one came from Germany.

Bart Rogers of Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences Program was enlisted to train the MRD’s dogs and handlers, who take the dogs to their homes and care for them each day.

These dogs are not pets, however.

“These dogs are high-drive, working dogs,” Rogers said. “We have an evaluation process. We test how environmentally sound they are, and, at the same time, we test their reward value. In other words, how important is the ball to them. Will the ball cause the dog to overcome any environmental stimulus or distraction while it’s working?”

During the training, the dogs are taught how to work in certain environments, from 15-foot skiffs to large offshore vessels and onshore warehouses.

“The dogs are trained to find the fillets no matter where they are,” said Rogers, who is training the dogs and handlers through a six-week course. “The hardest part is training the handler to work with the dog. I trained dogs to find pythons in the Everglades, and it never happens how you train. You have to be able to read your dog and understand the information it’s giving you.”

Bannon said the canine program should be operational by February, well ahead of the spring fishing season.

“The dogs have it figured it,” Bannon said. “It’s the people we’re training now.”

PHOTOS: (Alabama MRD) Enforcement Officer Chris Cox works his dog, Gaines, on multiple situations from large charter boats to small skiffs to search for fish fillets or hidden fish. Officer Lena Phillips runs her dog, Morgan, through a bay boat as part of the training to prepare the Marine Resources’ canine program for deployment in February.