Colorado State University Statistician Helps International Whaling Commission, Inupiat People Determine Quotas

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The Inupiat people native to northern coastal Alaska – one of the most isolated spots on the planet – are counting on a Colorado State University statistics professor to protect their way of life and one of their most valued resources.

Geof Givens, associate professor of statistics, is estimating how many animals are in the western Arctic bowhead whale population. He will have a preliminary answer in June. No ice-based count of these whales has succeeded since 2001.

The Inupiat have hunted bowheads near Barrow as part of their culture for millennia. That hunting has been regulated in recent decades by the International Whaling Commission, which controls who hunts whales – and where – around the globe.

Scientists perch on the sea ice edge in harsh conditions continuously for two months to count the whales and track them by recording whale song. However, more than three quarters of whales swim past undetected, Givens suspects.

“We’ve got unprecedented data from sea ice observation posts and underwater microphones, so now it’s up to me and my graduate student to statistically estimate total population size,” said Givens, who teaches statistical computing and applied statistics. “It’s tricky because these whales are often swimming under the water or ice. We need to estimate how many whales we never saw or heard, then add the number that were detected.”

Givens’ new estimate of total abundance will have long-lasting implications for bowhead conservation. He must report a final abundance estimate to the International Whaling Commission by June 2014.

Then the future of the Inupiat hunt depends on politics.

Once the International Whaling Commission issues an official ruling on the quota, the decision is legally binding. Each country that participates in the commission has one vote. Givens’ research has earned him a spot as a U.S. delegate to the Scientific Committee of the IWC for two decades. More than 80 countries belong to the IWC.

“Givens is a big asset to the U.S. delegation. He has been extremely good at conducting the needed complicated statistical analyses and, at the same time, explaining them in an easy-to-understand way. This has helped create appropriate management decisions,” said Dr. Debra Palka, who is head of the U.S. delegation to the Scientific Committee and past Chair of the Scientific Committee.

Typically, the Inupiat people have been allowed to harvest about 55 whales per year out of a population of about 13,000 whales in the region – a fraction of 1 percent. That population is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, “making it a win-win for both conservationists and hunters,” Givens said. Alaska also shares five whales in its quota with Russia.

“In 1848, Yankee whalers discovered these whales and almost annihilated them, which devastated a resource that has been a critical food source for the coastal Inupiat and a pillar of their culture,” he said.

In the 1970s, the IWC became concerned about bowhead conservation and the North Slope Borough began a comprehensive research program, culminating with Givens’ project. The North Slope Borough governs the vast region of northern Alaska inhabited by the Inupiat.

The North Slope Borough research program and Givens’ work are funded from the Borough budget, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and oil company BP. It is unique in how native hunters, science and industry share information and resources.

Givens and his counterparts in countries ranging from Iceland to South Africa have also developed indigenous hunting quota algorithms that they’ve tested for the IWC using different criteria and scenarios. These tests require thousands of 100-year simulations and estimates of how the whales breed, how long they live, where they swim, the diseases and environmental disasters they might face, etc.

“It’s critical to cover all the hypotheticals, to make sure a quota is safe,” Givens said.

Most whales around the world are protected from hunting by the IWC. Several indigenous cultures including the Inupiat receive an exception.

Givens’ enthusiasm for applied statistics spills over into the classroom.

“What I really take pride in and get excited about is trying to introduce students to the appeal of doing real applied data analysis and doing it well,” Givens said. “There’s an enormous amount of challenge involved in trying to distill the right scientific questions and then answer them in an effective way with the available data. Then you must turn the answer into policy. It shows students that applied statistics is really exciting and important. It’s not just somebody sitting at an Excel spreadsheet clicking a button.”

The living conditions in remote Arctic villages are harsh, Givens said, and many villagers rely on subsistence hunting. A gallon of milk can cost $11.

“It’s remote, it’s empty – it can be a very rough life,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the reverence the Inupiat hold for nature and whales in particular, which they view as their cultural heritage and want to protect for their children.”

When a whale is caught, the meat is shared among the villagers. Who gets what part is determined by strict traditional rules, family relationships, connections to the successful whaling crew, and the community’s commitment to share with others in need. The captain also distributes it at various feasts and festivals.