Skip to main content

Bridging the gulf in Gulf intelligence: AI in natural resources

It’s widely believed that our Gulf Coast oyster population is declining. As scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, we seek to prove it.

Or disprove it. We go where the science takes us. With oysters, the challenges have been to refine the accuracy of our counts and to make sense of the data generated by monitoring.

Vincent Lecours

The UF commitment to artificial intelligence is helping accomplish this. Vincent Lecours of the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences is using AI technology to map the seafloor along the Nature Coast in the area known as the Great Reef, out beyond Lone Cabbage Reef, to get a picture of oysters’ abundance and density.

Just a few years ago we were far more limited in how much we could contribute to monitoring and mapping. But as we bring on faculty such as Lecours who are trained in remote sensing and spatial analysis as applied to marine ecology, we’re able to advance the science that could inform how we manage our fisheries.

This cutting-edge approach got a big boost last year when UF launched an $80 artificial intelligence initiative. It provides for hiring faculty (including three UF/IFAS AI-related positions in environmental systems and another in invasion science).

Lecours is the kind of hybrid scientist who will contribute to a generation of technology-aided breakthroughs in protecting our natural environment. Though he’s focused on marine ecology, his expertise could be applicable in analyzing the health of our springs. Our investment in artificial intelligence can go in any number of directions. Let us know what challenges you’d like to see us address with AI.

We have long been committed to the health of our fisheries, but we’ve also made an important change to our messaging to emphasize this. We recently rolled out the name School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences for the school that includes fisheries. Previously the fisheries name was “hidden,” not included in the school’s name.

While some might argue that this is semantics, I believe it’s important because it declares publicly what our priorities are. The health of our marine ecosystems as well as our fisheries is vital to Florida’s ecological and economic future.

Accurate, updated science like that which Lecours is delivering will give resource managers better information on which to base their high-stakes decisions. We do this through the work of expert faculty like Lecours and programming such as Lakewatch, in which we enlist citizen scientists to monitor water quality in 10 spring runs and 525 lakes. This contributes to protecting water quality, wildlife and other natural resources that contribute to our quality of life in Florida.

My job title is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. Some would say these two things are at odds. I say this is a false dichotomy. The same scientific tools we’re developing to continue to support Florida as world fishing capital or an emerging aquaculture powerhouse can be brought to bear on our lakes, springs, rivers and even our stormwater retention ponds.

The important thing is to support publicly funded science. You can do this by supporting our budget requests in Tallahassee, enrolling in our Extension programming such as the Florida Master Naturalist Program or hosting student interns at your company or non-profit organization.