Japan Implored to Move Damaged Whaler Before Fuel Spills

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, February 19, 2007 (ENS) - Prime Minister Helen Clark is urging the government of Japan to remove a crippled whaling vessel from a pristine area of the Ross Sea inhabited by penguin colonies and other wildlife. But Clark, who leads a government in favor of whale conservation, is not offering a safe berth to the Japanese ship.

On Thursday, the Nisshin Maru was damaged in an explosion and fire that was later extinguished by the crew. It is still afloat in the Antarctic Ocean about 1,600 nautical miles south of New Zealand.

"We believe the ship has to be moved north," said Clark. Obviously, your first priority in a dangerous marine environment is to safeguard life, and we have a stricken ship, that's an issue. One crew member's life has already been lost," she said.

The body of crew member Kazutaka Makita, 27, was found Saturday on the deck of the vessel close to where the fire began, according to Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which owns and operates the whaler.

The fire damaged equipment used for propulsion, which is preventing the ship from making way on its own. The ship is carrying more than 1,000 metric tons of fuel.


New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark (Photo courtesy Government of New Zealand)
"We have a huge concern for the environment, a pristine environment in the area of Antarctica where New Zealand has a claim," said Prime Minister Clark. "So we would like to see that stricken ship out of there as soon as possible."

But when asked by reporters if she would offer the Nisshin Maru a berth in New Zealand to make repairs, Clark said only that the Japanese have not made such a request.

Assistance has been offered by the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza, a vessel capable of towing Nisshin Maru which is on the scene. Aid was also offered by the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, but the Japanese maintain that they need no help.

ďFears that this might turn into some environmental disaster are premature. The vessel is not drifting, itís not listing and itís not leaking," the Institute of Cetacean Research said in a statement. "The Nisshin Maru is stable and the fire has been contained to one area well away from any fuel and oil storage."


The Nisshin Maru is lashed onto vessels from the Japanese whaling fleet on each side for stability and support. On the left is the Oriental Bluebird, a tanker carrying fuel, and on the right is the hunting whaler Yushin Maru II. February 16, 2007. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Two other Japanese whaling vessels are helping the ship avoid icebergs, but Maritime New Zealand fears this arrangement could become dangerous if the weather turns and the seas become more turbulent.

The Polar Sea conducted an environmental assessment of the fire damaged whaling vessel Friday. No pollution was found during a 360 degree check of the vessel, the Coast Guard reported.

Polar Sea was sent to assess and photograph the stricken vessel for any potential environmental impacts that could result from the fire. The request for assistance was made by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand.

Polar Sea was in the area to open a channel in the Antarctic ice for supply ships to reach the U.S. McMurdo Antarctic research station and offload provisions for the winter. Polar Sea was departing McMurdo to its home port of Seattle, when it was diverted to assess the Nisshin Maru.

Prime Minister Clark said on Newstalk ZB radio that the whalers had better be able to cope with the situation now that they had rejected assistance.

"My advice is if you can't see a way of getting that boat out of there without some help either from the American vessel or from Greenpeace or from somebody else, the world is going to be very upset if there's a major spill in that area," the prime minister said.

Later, at her post-Cabinet press conference, she said, "One would hope that the fact that this season has been so ghastly for the Japanese whaling fleet might give cause for some reflection on whether they come back again."


Adelie penguin colony at New Zealand's Cape Bird South, Ross Island, Antarctica (Photo courtesy NZ Landcare Research)
The crew of the Japanese whaling vessel has managed to restore power on the ship after the fire, said New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter, but the engines are not working.

"At present there is a window of good weather which may last for two days," Carter said Friday. "New Zealand has today contacted the Japanese government in Tokyo, and I have spoken to the Japanese Ambassador in Wellington, urging Japan to make the most of the benign weather and move the Nisshin Maru out of Antarctic waters in the safest and most practical way."

Greenpeace fears the Nisshin Maru will be stuck in ice if it does not move quickly out of the Antarctic.

Anti-whaling campaigners on board the Esperanza say several ice sheets are moving closer to the Japanese vessels.

Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner from Anchorage, Alaska who is aboard the Esperanza writes on the ship's blog, "All of our offers to tow the vessel to safety have been refused by the Japanese authorities in Tokyo. We have been told that the whaling fleet will use its own vessels to tow the Nisshin Maru north, however, the Esperanza still remains the best-equipped ship for the job."

Duchin writes, "It's time for the Japanese to stop playing Russian Roulette with the pristine Antarctic environment and get their crippled whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, out of here as soon as possible."

The Ross Sea is one of the most biologically productive regions of the Southern Ocean.

More than 38 percent of all Adelie penguins - five million penguins in 38 colonies - are found here, even though this region has less than 10 percent of the total Antarctic coastline.

The Japanese whaling vessels were in the Southern Ocean with the stated intention of killing up to 900 minke whales and up to 10 endangered fin whales for "scientific research."