New Zealand is on stand-by to assist the Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru, which is on fire near Antarctica.
Conservation Minister Chris Carter says the ship whose factory floor is ablaze, is currently being aided by three vessels in the area. He says New Zealand could get a tug boat there within six-and-a-half days if called upon.
He says primary responsibility for the distressed ship resides with the Japanese, but the event has taken place inside an area for which New Zealand is responsible for search and rescue. The government's priority is to work with the Japanese fleet to get the Nisshin Maru's crew to safety.
It is critical the situation is brought under control as soon as possible as it would be devastating to the pristine Antarctic environment should the ship begin leaking, Mr Carter says.
There is up to 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and a lot of chemicals on board the vessel, which is the mothership of the Japanese whaling fleet.
He says Australia, the US and Britain have all agreed to help if called upon.
A crewman is missing in the cold of the Ross Sea in Antarctica after a fire on a Japanese factory whaling ship early today.
The Nisshin Maru sent out a distress call which was picked up by Maritime New Zealand shortly after 5am.
Spokesman Steve Corbett said little could be done from New Zealand because of the distance, but they were in constant contact with the master.
He said it was not known if the crewman had perished in the fire or had gone overboard.
If the man was in the water his survival could be measured in minutes, say other rescue specialists.
No decision had been made to send an air force Orion to help in the search.
If an Orion was sent it would have only about two hours over the search area, if it could not land and refuel at McMurdo.
There would be little point in sending an Orion if the man was in the water, although it could be sent if the ship was likely to sink and become an ecological disaster.
The fire was believed to be in the engine room of the 8000-tonne ship.
Mr Corbett said 20 crew had stayed on the ship to fight the fire but the rest of the 161 crew had been evacuated.
Maritime New Zealand received a distress call from the ship at 5.15am today and since then had been in constant contact with the captain.
Early reports indicated the ship was not in danger of sinking.
Lindsay Stuart, also from Maritime New Zealand, could not confirm a report of an explosion ahead of the fire.
He was reported to have said the cause of the fire was not known.
Weather and sea conditions in the Ross Sea were good with no swell and light winds.
Greenpeace ship Esperanza, which had been searching for the whaling fleet, answered the mayday call, but was stood down by Maritime New Zealand as other ships were closer.
The fleet had been shadowed by the Sea Shepherd ships, Robert Hunter and Farley Mowat, but both ships were very low on fuel and were heading for Australia.
Japanese whale-spotting ship Kaiko Maru this week called for help, saying it had been in a collision with the Robert Hunter.
- NZPA / NEWSTALK ZB