WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Repair crews have restarted the main engine of a Japanese whaling ship crippled by a fire a week ago near Antarctica, but the vessel has not yet moved under its own power, an official said today.
The Nisshin Maru was stricken by a fire on Feb. 15 that killed one crew member, burned out the main switchboards, and engulfed the whale-processing deck. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
The ship's engine was started overnight, said Glenn Inwood, spokesman for the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research.
"The last report we had . . . was that the engine was going. They'd replaced all the wiring, and checked all the gauges and the mechanics of it, and kicked the old girl into gear," Inwood told New Zealand's National Radio.
"It hasn't moved yet. It's still undergoing safety checks, [and] they hope to make some decision to move it today," he said.
Inwood added that if the processing deck, where whales are cut up, wasn't repaired, then the hunt for 945 whales under Japan's "scientific whaling" program probably was over.
A decision still has to be made as to whether the processing deck can be used, he added.
Steve Corbett of Maritime New Zealand said his country was concerned that the longer the ship remains in the area, the more it poses a risk to the Antarctic environment. The 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru is lashed to two other ships about 110 miles from the world's largest Adelie penguin rookery.
Officials and environmentalists were also concerned that the ship could leak some of the 343,000 gallons of oil it's carrying. So far, no oil or other chemicals have spilled.
"It's frustrating, but . . . we have no power to order them to leave the area; it's a foreign ship in international waters," Corbett said.
Japan's whaling agency intends for the ship to leave under its own power if possible.
Japanese officials say the annual whale hunts are for research, but environmental groups contend that the hunts are a pretext to keep the country's tiny whaling industry alive. The International Whaling Commission imposed a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.