Japanese Whaling Ship Catches Fire in Antarctica, Raising Environmental Concerns

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Officials warned of a potential environmental disaster in Antarctica after fire erupted Thursday on a Japanese whaling ship, leaving it crippled and drifting near penguin breeding grounds on the frozen continent's coast.

New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter, whose country is leading efforts to help the stricken ship, said it was carrying 132,000 gallons of heavy oil and 211,000 gallons of furnace oil and was starting to list from water pumped aboard to fight the fire.

"It is a serious situation ... a ship badly damaged and full of toxic oil," Carter told National Radio.

No oil had spilled from the ship and it was in no immediate danger of sinking, officials said.

Japanese officials said the blaze that broke out in the below-decks area of the ship where whale carcasses are processed was under control.

Most of the 148-member crew of the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru were evacuated Thursday to three other ships from the Japanese whaling fleet in the area, said Hideki Moronuki, an official with the Japan Fisheries Agency.

The Nisshin Maru sent out a distress call early Thursday after the fire broke out, said Steve Corbett, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand.

Senior crew closed hatches to seal off the burning area — apparently a processing plant inside the ship — to prevent the fire from spreading, Moronuki said.

"The ship has lost all engine power," Corbett said. "The crew are still fighting it, but with 20 people on board they are confident it won't sink and the fire won't spread further."

Carter said the safety of the Nisshin Maru's crew was the top priority, but noted the ship was only 110 miles from the Antarctic coast.

"We are also gravely concerned about the environmental risk to Antarctica's pristine environment if the ship is sufficiently damaged to begin leaking oil," Carter said in a statement.

The Nisshin Maru was one of at least two Japanese whaling ships that have been harassed recently by activists from the conservation group Sea Shepherd, who have thrown foul-smelling acid and other objects at the ships to try to keep them from hunting whales.