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Stricken oil-laden whaling ship drifting towards penguin breeding ground

TOKYO - Officials warned of a potential environmental disaster in Antarctica after fire erupted Thursday on a Japanese whaling ship, as the search continued for a missing crewmen from the crippled ship.

Japanese officials said the blaze that broke out in the below-decks area of the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru where whale carcasses are processed had been brought under control.

Most of the vessel's 148-member crew were evacuated Thursday to three other ships in the area that also belong to the Japanese whaling fleet, said Hideki Moronuki, an official with the Japan Fisheries Agency.

Hatches were closed to seal off the burning area, and some 30 crew members stayed on board to fight the fire, pumping water from the surrounding ocean, Moronuki said.

However, one crewmen - Kazutaka Makita, 27 - remained missing 21 hours after New Zealand officials received the ship's distress signal at 5:15 a.m. Thursday, said Kenji Masuda, another agency official. He added it was not yet clear if Makita had gone missing aboard ship or not.

Search teams were waiting for smoke to clear in the burning area before attempting to assess its condition and search for Makita, Masuda said. They planned to evaluate the situation Friday morning, he said.

Crew members also planned to re-board the ship to check its engine at that time and restart it if possible, he added.

The accident on board the ship - which was crippled and drifting near penguin breeding grounds along the Antarctic coast - aroused concerns of a potential environmental disaster.

New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter, whose country was leading efforts to help the stricken ship, said it was carrying 132,000 gallons of heavy oil and 211,000 gallons of furnace oil and was starting to list from water pumped aboard to fight the fire.

No oil had spilled from the ship and it was in no immediate danger of sinking, officials said.

Steve Corbett, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand, said his agency had been in constant contact with the ship's captain and was on standby to send ships to help.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

The ship was drifting 110 miles from Antarctica's Cape Adare, the world's largest penguin breeding rookeries with some 250,000 breeding pairs, Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson said.

"It's a long way off the coast but the currents do go that way. We're very concerned about what could happen," Sanson told The Associated Press.

He said the ship was far from help and in a "high energy environment where you get a lot of storms." Conditions stayed calm Thursday.

Carter contacted his counterparts in Japan, Australia, United States and Britain - other signatories to the Antarctic Treaty with responsibility for protecting its environment - in case "an international environmental response is needed," ministerial spokesman Nick Maling said.

The Nisshin Maru is the mother ship for five other Japanese vessels, and processes whales captured under Japan's research program.

One of the Japanese ships - but not the Nisshin Maru - collided on Monday with a ship from the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group during a protest. The two Sea Shepherd ships left the area on Wednesday after running low on fuel.

The New Zealand navy said it had two frigates that could get to the scene quickly. A Greenpeace ship is also nearby, though Moronuki said Japan would not seek help from anti-whaling vessels.

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