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This photo, supplied by the hunters and trappers organization in Pond Inlet, shows a narwhal 'blow hole' that has frozen over. ((Photo courtesy Brian Koonoo))

Hunters in the Baffin Island community of Pond Inlet continue to cull hundreds of narwhals trapped in the sea ice near their community, as the total number of harvested whales reached 575 over the weekend.

The latest figures from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans surpass the original estimate of 500.

Officials say there are likely more whales trapped in various "blow holes," or shrinking areas of open water where the mammals get air to breathe, but they add it's too difficult to tell how many are left and at risk of drowning or starving.

"These whales come up to breathe at different times, so all the whales don't get to the surface at the same time," Keith Pelley, acting area director of DFO's eastern Arctic office, told CBC News on Monday.

"So it's difficult to give an accurate number on the number of whales that are there."

Local hunters have been killing the trapped narwhals since Nov. 20, after residents found hundreds of whales crowded in breathing holes near Bylot Island, about 17 kilometres from Pond Inlet.

Whale samples could give clues

Elders and wildlife officials have agreed that the whales would otherwise die from starvation and a lack of oxygen as the sea ice closes in around them.

Pelley said a DFO officer is in Pond Inlet, monitoring the cull and assigning special tags to each narwhal killed. Weather permitting, more officers will be flown up to Pond Inlet to gather scientific samples from the narwhals, he added.

"It's used to determine the age [and] what the whales are feeding on," he said.

"It will also help us to determine which stock [the whales came from], because we have been doing samples from different whales throughout the past years. And once they do the DNA testing on the samples, they will be able to determine exactly which stock most of these whales are coming from."

Pelley said he believes the trapped whales came from the Eclipse Sound narwhal population, which he said has a healthy population of about 21,000.

Scientists with DFO have also requested satellite imagery of the area around Bylot Island to get a better sense of what ice conditions the whales encountered.

The narwhal cull in Pond Inlet has attracted worldwide attention, with critics decrying the massive kill and calling on the hunters to find other ways of freeing the narwhal.

Hunters keep media away

Hunters in Pond Inlet, a mainly Inuit hamlet of about 1,300, say they've been turning down requests from media outlets to fly into the community and cover the hunt.

Jayko Allooloo, chairman of the hunters and trappers organization in Pond Inlet, told CBC News that his group does not want cameras capturing images of whale carcasses laying about, in case some viewers think the hunters are wasting meat and blubber, also known as muktaaq.

Meanwhile, the organization that manages wildlife in Nunavut is defending the Pond Inlet hunters' decision to kill all the trapped narwhals in what DFO has called a "humane hunt."

"Those groups or individuals who are making these accusations, or trying to come up with ways to prevent this kind of incident [from happening], have to be aware this is a northern climate. It's a harsh country," said Harry Flaherty, acting chairman of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.

"No matter what we have tried, whether to bring in a ship or not, it wouldn't have made any difference with the situation [of] what happened in Pond Inlet."

Flaherty said hunters in Pond Inlet are allowed to hunt up to 130 narwhals a year and they haven't exceeded that limit in the past five years.

He added that Nunavut's land claims agreement allows for a humane hunt, like the one in Pond Inlet, to prevent animals from suffering.

Allooloo said the hunt is expected to end sometime this week.

Once it's over, all parties involved in the cull, including Allooloo's group, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, say they will review the situation.