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Study helps preserve Arctic whale, Eskimo subsistence hunt

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Research on one of the oldest-living mammals - the bowhead whale - has helped preserve a primary food source for Eskimos in the far reaches of Alaska, and also may provide a useful tool for studying genetic variation in other migratory animals.

The bowhead whale, devastated in the 19th and early 20th centuries by commercial whaling fleets, has been a food staple for Eskimos and other indigenous arctic peoples dating to prehistoric times. Due in part to research done by Purdue University professor John Bickham, the International Whaling Commission ruled last week to allow Eskimos to harvest 56 whales per year, the same quota that had been in place but had expired.

"Eskimos have been whaling for more than 2,000 years and have never endangered the bowhead whale," said Bickham, the professor of forestry and natural resources who presented data from a study he co-authored at the scientific meeting of the commission in May.

Bickham said the bowhead's population has recently been increasing by 3 percent a year, even while being harvested by subsistence hunters. The bowhead, he said, which can be 50 feet long and weigh 50 tons, should be able to increase its 11,000 population under the quota.

At the commission meeting, which ended May 31, the 76 member nations voted to renew the subsistence hunt quota for the next five years. Members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, worried the quota might not be renewed, celebrated the news.

"Science was on our side, and the commissions listened to what the scientific committee told them," said Edward Itta, mayor of North Slope Borough, Alaska.

Bickham, also director of Purdue's Center for the Environment, specializes in mammalian genetics and became involved with the research while still at Texas A&M University, along with doctoral student Ryan Huebinger. Researchers from Norway, Alaska and the continental United States collaborated in the
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Contact: Douglas M. Main
dmain@purdue.edu
765-496-2050
Purdue University
12-Jun-2007


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