Environmental News Archive

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Japan whaling ship catches fire

15 February 2007 (BBC)

A Japanese whaling ship has caught fire near Antarctica, leaving one crew member missing and raising fears of environmental damage.

The blaze on board the Nisshin Maru prompted the evacuation of its crew onto other ships.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but New Zealand authorities said it had nothing to do with whaling protesters.

The whaling fleet has been pursued by activists, protesting at plans to hunt 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales.

In recent days, protesters from the Sea Shepherd environmental group have clashed with the whalers, and thrown acid and other objects on the ships to try to stop them from carrying out their hunt.

Mechanical fault

The alarm was sounded on board the Nisshin Maru - an 8,000 tonne processing ship - just before daybreak.

About 120 members of its crew were evacuated to three other ships in the whaling fleet, while 40 sailors stayed on board to fight the fire in the ship's engine room.

One crew member is reported missing, but it is not clear whether he was caught up in the flames or went overboard into the icy waters of the Ross Sea.

New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter said that while the safety of the whaling ship's crew was the top priority, "we are also gravely concerned about the environmental risk to Antarctica's pristine environment, if the ship is sufficiently damaged to begin leaking oil".

New Zealand maritime authorities - whose country is responsible for search and rescue operations in the area - have ruled out any possibility that anti-whaling protestors had something to do with the fire.

Instead they think the blaze was caused by a mechanical fault.

Earlier this week, Japanese fisheries officials described members of the Sea Shepherd group as terrorists, after one of their vessels collided with a whaling boat in the southern ocean.

After that incident activists threatened to ram the Nisshin Maru to prevent whales being hauled on board for processing.

But the activists' ships were at least two or three days' sailing distance away from the whalers when the fire occurred.

"We haven't had contact with the vessel for about three days now and have been heading back to port because we are short of fuel," Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson told Australian TV.

Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food