Arctic hunters reluctantly gathered their harpoons and rifles Thursday to kill dozens of beluga whales that have been trapped for weeks in saltwater lakes and now have only one small air hole remaining.

Inuits living near Tuktoyaktuk, in the far Northwest Territories, had hoped the belugas would find their way back to the Beaufort Sea before ice blocked the way out. Many did not make it and they are trapped, having to share a small hole in the ice.

"We're going to have people go out to the site and harvest as many as we can," said Paul Voudrach, head of the Tuktoyaktuk hunters and trappers committee and local representative of the territorial government's Environment Department.

About 200 beluga were first spotted in early August by hunters in the Husky Lakes area south of Tuktoyaktuk, a string of saltwater inlets which are linked to the ocean through a 300-meter-wide (980-foot-wide) channel.

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There were still about 80 of the white mammals left in the lakes by late October, but the lakes and the channel are quickly freezing over and the whales' air hole shrinking.

Residents were cheering for the belugas to escape, despite the fact that each animal could provide enough meat and "muktuk" -- skin and blubber usually served raw -- to last a couple of large families through the winter.

But an Arctic storm last weekend froze the channel solid and left the whales with a single breathing hole. Officials determined that escape was now impossible and the whales would suffocate or starve.

Killing the whales now, while they are still in good shape, is better than leaving them to slowly freeze under the ice, said Voudrach.

"(People) don't like seeing animals suffer. Right now we're looking to take all of them that we can," he said.

Hunters will gather around the breathing hole and wait for the belugas to surface for air. One man will harpoon the animal and another will shoot it with a rifle. Six others will be on hand to haul the whales out of the water, he said.

They will be butchered right there on the ice and the meat and muktuk will be distributed to area communities.

Although most hunters got enough whale meat during this summer's hunting season, some could still use more, said Chuck Gruben, who was heading up the hunt.

"You just look at it as food on the table. If we just leave them there, they're going to freeze and that's not only a waste of an animal, it's a waste of food."