February 15, 2007
Whaling Ship Drifts Off Antarctic Area
By RAY LILLEY
WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A Japanese whaling ship crippled by fire drifted off the world's largest penguin breeding grounds Friday, and New Zealand alerted other countries it may need help if the vessel leaked oil into the pristine Antarctic waters.
One crewmember was missing from the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru, which had started to list from water pumped aboard to fight the fire. The fire was contained below decks but continued to burn, said New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter.
No oil had spilled and the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking, officials said.
Carter contacted his counterparts in Japan, Australia, United States and Britain - other signatories to the Antarctic Treaty with responsibility for protecting its environment - in case "an international environmental response is needed," ministerial spokesman Nick Maling said.
Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson said he had asked the U.S. Antarctic program to redirect a scheduled flight over the Nisshin Maru on Friday to check the ship's condition and provide the first independent assessment of the vessel since the fire began Thursday.
The ship was carrying 132,000 gallons of heavy oil and 211,000 gallons of furnace oil.
Steve Corbett, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand, said his agency had spoken with the ship early Friday and the captain said overnight pumping had emptied excess water from the stricken vessel.
"That's corrected the list ... but there is still no (engine) power," he said. The fire "is contained and controlled" at present.
"We're confident the situation is under control but there's still an environmental threat and a crewman is still missing," he told The Associated Press.
Search teams were waiting for smoke to clear in the burning area before attempting to assess its condition and search for crewman Kazutaka Makita, 27, Japan Fishery Agency official Kenji Masuda said.
Crew members also planned to reboard the ship to check its engine at that time and restart it if possible, he added.
Japanese officials said the blaze broke out below deck, where whale carcasses are processed. Most of the vessel's 148-member crew were evacuated Thursday to three other ships in the area that also belong to the Japanese whaling fleet, said Hideki Moronuki, an official with the Japan Fisheries Agency.
Hatches were closed to seal off the burning area, and some 30 crew members stayed aboard to fight the fire, pumping in seawater, Moronuki said.
The Nisshin Maru is the mother ship for five other Japanese vessels that hunt whales in annual hunts that Japan says are for research. The hunts began after the International Whaling Commission imposed a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.
The program is allowed by the IWC, which uses its data and approves its kill quotas. But many environmental groups say the hunts are a pretext to keep Japan's tiny whaling industry alive. Meat from the catch is sold commercially, and canned or frozen whale can be found in most large supermarkets, though it is no longer an important part of the Japanese diet.
One of the ships in the Nisshin Maru's group collided on Monday with a ship from the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group, which was protesting the hunt. The two Sea Shepherd ships left the area on Wednesday after running low on fuel.
Masuda said it was too early to determine what effect the fire would have on the whaling operation.
The ship was drifting 110 miles from Antarctica's Cape Adare, which hosts the world's largest penguin breeding rookeries with some 250,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, Sanson said.
"It's a long way off the coast but the currents do go that way. We're very concerned about what could happen," Sanson told The Associated Press.
He said the ship was far from help and in a "high energy environment where you get a lot of storms." Conditions were calm Thursday.
The New Zealand navy said it had two frigates that could get to the scene quickly. A Greenpeace ship is also nearby, though Moronuki said Japan would not seek help from anti-whaling vessels.
Institute of Cetacean Research spokesman Glenn Inwood said the New Zealand-owned tug Pacific Chieftain, the closest salvage vessel to the Nisshin Maru, was 6 1/2 days away.
"Contingencies are being made at this stage but, again, it all depends on the damage assessment and that will be done over the next few hours," he told National Radio on Friday.
Associated Press Writer Carl Freire contributed to this report from Tokyo.