Colorado State University Professor’s Computer Model for Whales Competes in International Competition

A Colorado State University statistics professor is developing a computer model that could be used as the basis for international policy on subsistence whale hunting by aboriginal cultures.

Geof Givens is the sole scientist representing the United States in a worldwide competition to design an algorithm that determines the number of whales available to aboriginal cultures for hunting each year. Worldwide, only about five aboriginal cultures, including Eskimos in Alaska, continue to hunt whales for food and as part of their cultural heritage.

Givens and two graduate students have worked on the algorithm for the past two years. When completed in 1999, it will compete in a rigorous test against models developed by a handful of other scientists from around the world. If Givens’ model is selected, it will be used by the International Whaling Commission to establish scientifically-based catch guidelines on aboriginal subsistence whaling–the only type of whale hunting the commission recognizes as a cultural and subsistence need.

At 31, Givens is one of the youngest members of the IWC’s Scientific Committee and has served as a U.S. delegate on the committee since 1992. The IWC, which consists of 40 member countries including the United States, establishes international rules on preserving whale stocks and whaling guidelines, monitors and regulates whale-watching operations, evaluates environmental impacts on whale stocks and creates whale sanctuaries. The commission also has established a number of international policies, including the current worldwide ban on commercial whaling.

"To represent the United States in this competition is an honor and an incredible challenge," Givens said. "Where many of the other challengers are fisheries scientists, my background is mathematical statistics. As a result, we’re developing a model to address the issue from very different perspectives."

Other U.S. scientists that are members of the IWC’s Scientific Committee support Givens’ efforts to head up the algorithm project based on his experience with bowhead research with the Eskimos on the North Slope of Burrough, Alaska. Bowhead whales were nearly wiped out between 1848-1914 by Yankee whalers, but have flourished under small Eskimo subsistence hunts since then and currently number about 7,800 to 9,400 animals in the western arctic.

Since the late 1970s, the Eskimos have funded millions of dollars of scientific research on whales and the arctic ecosystem in order to keep bowhead populations at sustainable levels. Over the past seven years, Givens has created several statistical models–some in collaboration with other U.S. scientists–for native Alaskan communities and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission to help the culture assess how many whales are available to hunt each year.

For example, Givens and two scientists from the University of Washington created a statistical method for assessing the bowhead whale population that has been used by the IWC’s Scientific Committee to provide bowhead quota recommendations to the entire commission. Givens’ analyses have included predictions of sexual maturity, survival rates and age distribution of the bowhead whale population and estimates of the potential negative effects on whale migration behavior associated with offshore seismic oil exploration.

Although Givens is the sole U.S. scientist working on the algorithm, about 20 other American researchers are members of the commission’s scientific committee. Some of them work on bowhead issues and participate in the algorithm development project by providing suggestions for testing and evaluating Givens’ methods.

It could be years before Givens knows whether his model will be used by the International Whaling Commission. After all the competitors have submitted their programs, Givens said that other members of the scientific committee will then have the chance to "shoot them down" and suggest improvements.

People often wonder how a statistics professor like Givens became involved in helping to formulate international policy on whale stocks.

"I’ve always been an environmentalist," Givens said. "I think that statistics often gets a bad rap. We use carefully developed models to help scientists quantify and answer very important questions."