SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Japanese whaling ship on fire off the coast of Antarctica has sparked fears of an environmental disaster if the ship's 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil and chemicals leaks.
The fire broke out on Thursday at about 5 a.m. New Zealand time on the black-hulled Nisshin Maru, the 8,000 ton flagship of the Japan whaling fleet. One crewman is missing.
New Zealand maritime authorities said anti-whaling protesters in the Southern Ocean, which clashed with the whalers on Monday, were not involved as they are more than two days sail away.
The fire, fueled in part by whale oil, had been contained below deck and the Japanese crew were now simply waiting for it to burn itself out, said Maritime New Zealand.
It is unclear whether the ship, currently disabled, will be able to restart its engines. If it remains disabled the Nisshin Maru will continue to threaten the environment if calm weather in the Southern Ocean, known for massive storm seas, turns bad.
"We don't need to stress that this is an extremely pristine environment with high biodiversity values," New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter told a news conference in Wellington, New Zealand.
"We think there is up to 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board the vessel, as well as many other chemicals. From an environmental point of view we are very concerned should there be any leakage into the Ross Sea," said Carter.
Carter said if an oil leak occurred an international response would be launched involving New Zealand, Australia and the United States, which all have Antarctic bases.
Maritime New Zealand said the cause of the fire was unknown, but there had been reports of explosions below deck.
Three other Japanese whaling ships have come to the aid of the Nisshin Maru, taking 126 crew off the ship, while 31 are fighting the fire, said Maritime New Zealand spokesman Steve Corbett said.
"The master advises he has the situation under control," said Corbett, but added "there is some potential to escalate again".
"The fire is below decks, below the bridge and above the engine room," Corbett told Reuters. "It is not out, it is still going, but its contained in the factory space."
"It's a serious fire. What they have done is seal off the area and they will let it burn itself out. The temperature is dropping, that's good news."
No international assistance had been requested or sent to the area -- 265 nautical miles north of the U.S. McMurdo Base in Antarctica, said the New Zealand government.
"We are doing everything we can to protect the lives of he Japanese sailors," said Carter, adding New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Britain were forming a contingency plan to aid the stricken whalers.
Environmental group Greenpeace, which has a ship the Esperenza about 700 km (435 miles) from the stricken vessel, also said the burning ship posed a danger to Antarctic wildlife.
"Any fire can cause serious damage, depending on what happens, leaks from the fuel or just as a result of the fire fighting equipment," the group's John Bowler said.