A Chinese factory fishing ship caught fire today just off the coast of Antarctica and 97 crew members were rescued by a nearby Norwegian vessel as Chile's military mobilised to prevent any environmental damage.
The crew members abandoned the burning Kai Xin and were taken aboard the Juvel about 55km from Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research base near the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, Chilean officials said.
The ship was not immediately at risk of sinking, and nearby vessels could tow it away from the Antarctic coast if necessary, officials said.
Capt. Juan Marcelo Villegas, maritime governor for Chile's portion of Antarctica, told The Associated Press that Chile's navy could send a tugboat from Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America, to tow the ship to harbour as long as it remained seaworthy.
Chile's air force was preparing a second flight for Thursday to check on the vessel's condition. The Kai Xin left port in Uruguay and Chilean officials did not know how much fuel it was carrying, Villegas said.
"At the moment the weather conditions are pretty favourable. There's little wind and the ocean conditions are good, so, for the moment, there's no imminent risk of sinking," Villegas said.
China's Panamanian-flagged Skyfrost ship was approaching the area and would be able to take on the rescued sailors, he said.
Chile's Antarctic base could not handle the rescued crew, Villegas said. He said the chief of China's Antarctic base had been notified.
China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment, but the official Xinhua News Agency said the Chinese Embassy in Santiago was in close contact with Chilean authorities over the matter.
The environmental group Greenpeace said the crippled Chinese ship is part of an international fleet of about 50 vessels authorised by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to fish off the Antarctic coast.
"This Chinese fishing ship that's on fire has permission to fish for krill," Milko Schvartzman, who campaigns against overfishing for Greenpeace, said in an email.
He said Greenpeace opposed the Antarctic fishing. "They don't know how the ecosystem might be affected by fishing for krill, which forms part of the foundation for the entire ocean food chain," Schvartzman wrote.
The commission is meeting in July in Berlin to discuss the possible creation of large Antarctic marine reserves. Schvartzman said Greenpeace is lobbying for approval, saying the reserves would "protect one of the most pristine regions left in the oceans".