Manatees and Dugongs

Innovative AI technique enhances real-time tracking of manatees

The conservation of endangered species receives a technological boost as scientists at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) devise an artificial intelligence (AI) method that accurately counts manatee populations in real-time. 

Counting challenges and AI solution 

Counting manatees has long presented a challenge due to their herding behaviour, weather conditions, time of day and environmental factors that obscure their visibility. Water reflections can also hinder the counting process. 

There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), the latter of which is shown above. In the United States, manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the take (i.e., harass, hunt, capture or kill) of all marine mammals.

Manatees up for protection

Federal wildlife authorities are re-evaluating the classification of manatees, a move prompted by mounting issues, most notably the devastating loss of seagrass, a critical food source for these gentle marine creatures.

A Long-Overdue Review

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its intention to revisit the categorization of manatees, contemplating a return from “threatened” to “endangered.” This potential reversal would overturn the 2017 decision to reclassify manatees.

West Indies manatees
West Indies manatees

Listening in on manatees can determine population numbers

To successfully conserve and restore manatee populations, scientists need to know how many of them there are in a specific habitat. This isn’t always easy to find out, particularly in the Bocas del Toro province in Panama, where Antillean manatees live in turbid brackish waters, covered by thick aquatic vegetation.

Other methods, like aerial and sonar surveys, and infrared cameras, present logistical challenges and can be costly.

Florida power plant closures may evict manatees

If current indicators follow suit, a large percentage Florida’s manatees may soon need a new winter home. Over the next 10-20 years, the state’s coal-fired power plants are expected to close. As 60 percent of the manatee population utilize the plants for refuge during winter, many will be forced to move to the natural springs such as those on the Crystal River. The springs’ constant 74-degree temperatures could soon be overcrowded with the gentle giants.

Environmentalists demand end to manatee interaction

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to end the popular swim-with programs by disallowing people to swim within 10 feet of the manatees. In addition, it recommends the expansion of no-human access areas and to designate the entire Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs as critical manatee habitats.

These proposals do not sit well with some people.