February 21, 2007 / 12:06 AM / 12 years ago

Japanese whaler may move, activists fear oil spill

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese whaling ship stranded off Antarctica could move on its own power within several days, an official said, but anti-whaling activists warned that environmental disaster still looms.

Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru (C) is seen tied to the Oriental Bluebird (R) and a whale chase ship (L) in this handout aerial photograph from Greenpeace from the Ross Sea in Antarctica, February 17, 2007. REUTERS/Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace/Handout

The Nisshin Maru, the 8,000 ton flagship of Japan’s whaling fleet, has been disabled since a fire last Thursday that killed a crewman, sparking concern that oil or chemicals could spill into the pristine Southern Ocean close to a major penguin colony.

Japan has rejected offers of towing from environmental watchdog Greenpeace in favor of attempting repairs, and Fisheries Agency official Hideki Moronuki said that by Wednesday afternoon the engine and the radar systems were both running.

“We still need to check other systems, but the ship could move under its own power in a couple of days,” he said.

“We are grateful to Greenpeace for their offers of help, but we don’t need it.”

He added that it was still too early to say where the ship might head once it can move, including whether or not it would continue the annual hunt Japan calls scientific research whaling.

Greenpeace has been monitoring the condition of fast-moving ice floes around the ship amid concerns more than 1,000 tonnes of oil on board the ship could be blown by heavy Antarctic seas onto the world’s largest Adelie penguin breeding ground, some 110 miles away.

Speaking by phone hook-up from the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza, which was several miles from the stricken Japanese whaler, expedition leader Karli Thomas warned that time may be running out as ice forms with the end of the Antarctic summer.

Reiterating Greenpeace’s offer to tow the ship, she told a news conference: “If we don’t get the ship out of here as soon as possible, we could see a slow-motion disaster unfolding.”

“We feel this has been a case where the human-related issues and environmental issues have been put behind political concerns,” Thomas added.

Japan has denied news reports and accusations by New Zealand’s government that there is a threat of pollution from the Nisshin Maru, calling them malevolent.

Australian police want to interview the crews of the two ships involved in the collision between a vessel in the Japanese whaling fleet and a ship belonging to the activist Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a spokesman for Australia’s Justice Minister said on Wednesday.

The Japanese ship, the Kaiko Maru, had its propeller damaged in the incident last Tuesday.

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