From: Ray Lilley, Associated Press
Published February 23, 2007 12:00 AM

New Zealand Demands Japan Prioritize Move of Stricken Whaler from Antarctic Coast

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand demanded Friday that Japan explain why its oil-laden whaling ship has not yet been moved away from the pristine Antarctic coast eight days after being crippled by fire.

Conservation Minister Chris Carter said New Zealand wants the stricken Nisshin Maru urgently moved out of the area to avoid an environmental disaster if the weather deteriorates and the ship founders.

"That ship is still stationary in the water. It has got 343,000 gallons of toxic oil in it and we want it out of there," Carter said.

Japan appears determined that the 8,000-ton ship will leave the region under its own steam, while New Zealand and conservationists say it should accept offers to help tow it away to ease fears it could spill oil or toxic chemicals near Antarctica's largest penguin rookery.

"It isn't posing any threat to the Antarctic environment and the best thing to do for the safety of the crew is to complete ... getting the vessel seaworthy," said Glenn Inwood, spokesman for Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research.

The ship's main engine has been restarted but crew members turned it off while they repair the vessel's safety systems, he said.

"We keep hearing these optimistic reports that the engine is working and that they are making great progress but the bottom line is it is still stationary in the water," Carter said.

Weather in the Ross Sea where the vessel is drifting, lashed between two other whalers about 135 miles north of the pristine Antarctic coast, is still calm and the ship is not in any danger from pack ice, Inwood said.

The Japanese whaling fleet had been "really, really lucky with the weather -- but that won't last," Carter said.

Japanese officials say the fire did not cause any structural damage to the ship. One crew member died.

The fire crippled Japan's efforts to hunt up to 945 whales in the Southern Ocean in a season that runs from mid-December to mid-March, because the Nisshin Maru is the only ship in the fleet that can process carcasses.

Source: Associated Press

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