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AI Meets Ecology: Monitoring Invasive Species with Angus Galloway

Angus Galloway, photo courtesy of Sunday Creative

When you think of artificial intelligence (AI), what typically comes to mind? ChatGPT? Generated photos of cats surfing on the moon, or videos of dogs talking to each other? That’s what comes to mind for most people, says CSI Member Angus Galloway. “It saddens me that inauthentic content generation is one of the most recognizable applications of AI now,” Galloway says. “There are so many underexplored areas where AI can be really beneficial and without displacing human labour.” Galloway’s work at CSI involves training AI models to identify invasive mussels on the bottom of the Great Lakes, expanding scientists’ knowledge of the density of these mussels on the vast lake beds. We spoke to Galloway to explore the impacts of invasive mussels, how AI technology can help, and how being a member of the CSI community has benefited Galloway.

Let’s back it up for a moment – there are invasive species of mussels, those delicious mollusks that come in a white wine broth at my local restaurant? Meet zebra and quagga mussels, invasive species that are thought to have originated from the Caspian Sea region, and that likely made their way to the Great Lakes via the ballast water of commercial ships. These small mollusks can pose massive problems to local ecosystems and infrastructure. Galloway is no stranger to mussels. Common blue mussels (the ones that are tasty in a broth) are a major export of his home province of Prince Edward Island. What sparked Galloway’s current work using AI to monitor invasive mussels stemmed from this industry; in PEI, they’ve been battling invasive tunicates within the mussel farming industry. “Farmers essentially have to run their stock of blue mussels through a high pressure power wash (similar to a car wash) to remove the tunicates, and as a result lose about 40% of their mussel biomass,” Galloway says. “I started this line of work in my masters studies by training an AI model to separately identify the tunicates from the mussels, so that water streams could be better targeted to remove the invasives but not damage as many mussels.”

AI counts mussel coverage on video from All Too Clear documentary, courtesy of Inspired Planet Productions

There are a number of ecological concerns that are impacted by invasive species. Locally, zebra and quagga mussels contribute to many of the explosive algae blooms that we see in the Great Lakes each summer. The mussels filter out the lowest levels of the food web, which leads to clearer water and increased penetration of sunlight. And while this might seem like a good thing, Galloway clarifies that it’s generally not. “The increased sunlight and selective feeding on non-toxic algae simultaneously adds fuel while reducing competition among different types of algae, enabling toxic blue-green algae to thrive, shutting down our beaches and damaging water sources.” On top of that, the mussels may be turning the Great Lakes into carbon emitters rather than carbon sinks. And the mussels are impacting our fight against increased carbon emissions in other ways, too. “Just this fall, these invasive mussels were discovered in the St. John River in New Brunswick,” says Galloway. “The river network contributes 20% of New Brunswick’s total electric supply, which could be jeopardized as mussels clog hydroelectric dams, a major source of clean energy.” Curious to learn more about how these invasive species impact the Great Lakes? Galloway recommends The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan.

Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center, live mussels identified with Galloway’s method indicated by green markings.

Now that we know what we’re dealing with, let’s dive into the new AI methodology that Galloway and his colleagues have been building. As part of Galloway’s PhD research at the University of Guelph, he published a paper on the software system component of his work in PEI. That led him to an opportunity with Environment Climate Change Canada to study invasive mussel biomass on the lakebed. Typically, measuring mussel biomass is an incredibly time and labour intensive endeavour; divers venture down, dig up a half meter patch of the lakebed, bring it up to a boat, ship it back to a lab, wash it, freeze it, and then manually count all the mussels. Now, Galloway uses those samples as the basis to train an AI model. In collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, they’ve been expanding their datasets by taking photos of the lakebed with autonomous underwater vehicles (think: a self-driving submarine with a camera), which enables them to get much wider and more comprehensive coverage of the lake. Now that the AI method is able to reliably identify live mussels in the imagery across a range of different habitats, Galloway hopes to create a fully automated, lakewide mussel density map, by collecting and analyzing data in real time. “Rather than replacing scuba diving jobs with automation, the goal is to increase the work humans do at a much larger scale to obtain new information on lake health.” Think this is cool? Check out this neat project using AI to process echosounder data to help measure fish populations.

Video courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center. Scuba diver takes video, live mussels identified with Galloway’s method indicated by blue markings.

Angus Galloway poses with autonomous underwater vehicle

So, in light of the many negative impacts from these invasive species, will this new AI technology help to remove these pesky mussels from our lakes? “Unfortunately, no,” says Galloway. “In most of the Great Lakes, the mussels are so abundant that it’s not feasible to control them. There’s hundreds of trillions of them.” But, he says, there’s still enormous benefits to studying them and more accurately measuring their reach. “We need to study them in order to make management decisions,” Galloway says. “For example, these mussels fill in interstices (the gaps between rocks) where fish lay their eggs to reproduce. If we don’t understand mussel abundance, it’s harder to understand and mitigate the impact on fish stocks.” The aforementioned mussels found in the St. John River so far marks their easternmost habitat, and measuring their abundance there could help us to limit their further growth and adapt hydrodrams for a “musselbound” future. In fact, a 2022 report by the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario found that tax dollars invested in long term management and measurement of invasive species have a 1:5 economic return on action – and the sooner we start preventative measures, the greater the return.

For Galloway, being a part of the CSI community has been both beneficial and exciting. At CSI, Galloway was introduced to a fellow member who connected him to the producers of “All Too Clear”, an upcoming documentary about the invasive mussels in the Great Lakes. As it turns out, they had incredible cinematic footage that was a great test case for Galloway’s AI. “Working near other environmental organizations like Ontario Nature has been great too,” Galloway says. “Initially, I joined CSI just because I was getting cabin fever at home and needed a new place to work. But I learned that CSI is so much more than a workspace – it’s community.” 

Interested in learning more about Galloways work at the intersection of AI and ecology? Get in touch with him!

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