updated 10/27/2006 1:10:51 PM ET 2006-10-27T17:10:51

Residents of an Arctic hamlet on the Beaufort Sea in Canada are hoping a pod of beluga whales will be able to escape slowly freezing lakes, even though the whales would supply many families with a winter's worth of meat and blubber.

"It's a big concern for the people of the community," said Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Jackie Jacobson. "We just hope they can get all out."

About 200 beluga whales were spotted in early August by hunters in the nearby Husky Lakes area, a string of saltwater inlets linked to the ocean through a wide channel.

A fly over late last week suggested there were about 80 whales left in the lakes. But the channel is slowly freezing over, which would trap the white mammals.

If that happens, hunters would kill the whales before the lake itself freezes over, said Paul Voudrach, head of the Tuktoyaktuk hunters committee and representative for the territorial government's Environment Department. "This is a natural occurrence and this will happen."

Beluga whales grow to be about 15 feet long on average, weighing up to about 3,300 pounds. Males are slightly larger than females.

Each beluga could provide enough meat and muktuk — skin and blubber usually served raw — to last a couple of large families through the winter, Voudrach said.

But nobody really wants that to happen, said Jacobson. Anybody who wants whale meat or muktuk probably already has some after the July whale-hunting season.

The prospect of watching the whales slowly forced into tighter and tighter breathing holes as the ice covers the lake pleases nobody.

"If they get frozen in, they're going to be in one hole, popping up and down and taking turns (breathing)," Jacobson said. "That's not right, seeing the whales suffer like that."

Ice conditions in Husky Lakes right now are too dangerous for either hunting or herding the animals out to sea using boats, said Voudrach.

And time is running short. The channel is expected to freeze over by early November.

If any whales do not make it, hunters from Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik will wait until the ice is safe, then cluster around the breathing hole. The beasts will be harpooned, shot and butchered, and the meat distributed to the Northwest Territories' six communities.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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