Japanese Whaling Ship on Fire Near Antarctica

TOKYO, Japan, February 15, 2007 (ENS) - An explosion and fire broke out on the Japanese factory whaling ship Nisshin Maru in Antarctic waters during the early hours this morning. One crew member has gone missing.

“It is our priority at this stage to locate the missing sailor. We are unsure whether he is still on board the Nisshin Maru or whether something happened during the evacuation of the vessel," said Dr. Hiroshi Hatanaka, the director general of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which owns and operates the whaling fleet.

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The Japanese factory whaler Nisshin Maru (Photo © The Institute of Cetacean Research)
Most of crew and scientists on board - 126 people - were evacuated onto other vessels accompanying the Nisshin Maru, while around 30 people remained on board to extinguish the fire, which broke out on the floor of the whale processing factory.

One crew member - identified by the Institute of Cetacean Research as 27 year old Kazutaka Makita, of Kagoshima in southern Japan - has been missing since the explosion.

At this stage, the cause of the fire is unknown, said Dr. Hatanaka. Damage assessments are being carried out, he said.

Maritime New Zealand spokesman Steve Corbett said the smoke was so heavy that the skeleton crew left aboard sealed the affected area of the ship until morning.

The stricken vessel is about 260 nautical miles north of New Zealand's Scott Base in Antarctica, an area Environment Minister Chris Carter today said is "an extremely pristine environment with high biodiversity values."

"We think there is up to 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board the vessel as well as many other chemicals of course," Carter said. "From an environmental point of view we are very concerned should there be any leakage of this material into the Ross Sea."

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Dead whale on the flensing deck of the Nisshin Maru (Photo © The Institute of Cetacean Research)
The Japanese vessels were in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary carrying out a "scientific research" expedition. Their self-assigned quota for Antarctic waters this year is 850 minke minke whales, plus or minus 10 percent, in addition to 10 endangered fin whales.

No whaling protest vessels were in the area at the time of the explosion and fire.

The Greenpeace vessel Esperanza, about 700 nautical miles from the location of the Nisshin Maru, contacted the New Zealand Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre offering assistance, but were informed two hours later that their help was not needed.

The two Sea Shepherd vessels that had chased the Japanese whalers and Monday encountered them in a ramming incident are out of the area and heading for Melbourne, Australia. Each side claims its ship was rammed by the other, and each offers video to back its claim.

The Sea Shepherd ships Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter are 1,100 miles to the northwest, said Sea Shepherd Founder and President Captain Paul Watson aboard the Farley Mowat.

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Blue line on the globe points to the Ross Sea, the approximate location of the Nisshin Maru. (Image courtesy JCOMMOPS)
The Robert Hunter is required to be in Melbourne by February 19, the day the British have ordered the removal of the ship's registration at the request of the Japanese government, Watson said. The Farley Mowat, which is operating without a flag, has only enough fuel left to reach Melbourne.

"Of course we are concerned for the welfare of the crew on the Nisshin Maru," said Watson. "However we are down here because of our concern for the welfare and fate of defenseless whales. These highly intelligent, socially-complex sentient beings are now safe for the rest of this season from the merciless harpoons of the Japanese outlaw whalers and that is a good thing – a very good thing – and we are pleased for that."

Dr. Hatanaka said, "a decision on continuing with the research program will be made once the assessment has been completed."

This is the second major fire aboard the Nisshin Maru in nine years. On November 23, 1998, when the Nisshin Maru was on the way down to Antarctica it caught fire and sustained damage. It was towed to New Caledonia for repairs.