Wildlife managers in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., have agreed not to do anything to at least 80 beluga whales trapped in a chain of saltwater lakes east of the community.
The whales have been trapped in small sections of open water in the Husky Lakes since October, when their only exit to the Arctic Ocean froze over.
But officials with the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department and the Tuktoyaktuk hunters and trappers committee say they've decided to let the trapped whales die on their own this winter, as opposed to inviting local hunters to take part in a mercy hunt.
"We are not going to be mounting a rescue effort or a mercy kill effort," Ed DeBruyn, the federal department's acting district manager in the Arctic, told CBC News on Wednesday.
Some residents in the Arctic hamlet of 870 raised concerns that it would be cruel to let the animals starve and drown in the icy water.
DeBruyn said human intervention will not be necessary this year because the beluga whale population is very healthy.
"We are aware that, yes, some of these animals will suffer," he said.
"It's a natural phenomenon. We see… all sorts of species that go through similar phenomena, that they suffer as well, and we don't mount rescue efforts for them, either."
Around this time last year, a similar pod of belugas was trapped in the Husky Lakes when ice clogged their narrow exit channel. The whales often feed in the lakes during the summer, then return to the Arctic Ocean through the channel and migrate west toward Russia.
At that time, in light of concerns from Tuktoyaktuk residents about the whales suffering, the federal department hired local Inuvialuit hunters to kill 39 trapped whales. That mercy kill cost the government about $70,000.
But Paul Voudrach, chairman of the Tuktoyaktuk hunters and trappers committee, said he agrees that saving the whales won't be necessary this year. Instead, he said he wants to observe how letting nature take its course may affect the beluga whales' long-term behaviour.
"When they die in the Husky Lakes… these other whales will maybe not come back to the area, because death is in the area," Voudrach said.
DeBruyn noted that Inuvialuit hunters have the right to hunt beluga whales, and that his department will even pay them a nominal fee to do so, but won't be organizing a large hunt.
"This is a natural event, and the need to hunt them is a matter for the Inuvialuit to decide as to whether… they want to hunt them or not," he said.
He added that his department will organize a workshop next year to discuss ideas on how to prevent the whales from entering the Husky Lakes in the first place.