Wildlife officers show dogged determination in hunting illegal lobsters

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. - It took less than two minutes Monday for Gauge, a 4-year-old black Labrador, to sniff out a lobster tail hidden inside a dive bag at Phil Foster Park.

Gauge's brother, Boone, perhaps distracted by the commotion of Gauge's earlier discovery, took twice as long to locate the lobster.

The dogs and their handlers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement officers Cris Douglas and Hank Juntunen, comprise two of 14 K-9 detection teams that operate throughout the state.

The dogs are trained in search and rescue, evidence detection and resource detection. Resources include deer, turkey, snook, alligators, lobster, duck and snapper.

During the next two days, the dogs' skills at resource detection will be tested. Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the state begins its two-day spiny lobster sport season.

In advance of the event, in which recreational divers are allowed to capture up to six lobster per day in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park and 12 everywhere else - excluding egg-bearing females and lobsters with a shell length of less than 3 inches - FWC officers held a training exercise aboard a 22-foot boat anchored at Phil Foster Park.

Gauge and Boone separately boarded the boat to search for hidden lobster tails. Both discovered the contraband within minutes, alerting their handlers by scratching the dive bag where it was located.

"They're very successful in detection," Douglas said. "It's just a matter of interpreting the dog. That's why we have to train our dogs. We've got to read our dogs. He can't tell you the lobster's in there, but he gives us reactions to where he lets us know that he's detected an odor of a lobster. It just cuts down on time in searching vessels."

The K-9 teams undergo 480 hours of initial training, followed by weekly maintenance training. Training sessions often include resource detection units from other states.

"Florida is recognized nationally for our tracking units," Juntunen said.

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