By Lui Andrew Henao
A Chilean military tugboat is heading to Antarctica to prevent an environmental disaster by retrieving a Chinese fishing ship that caught fire and began to drift dangerously near sharp glaciers.
The Kai Xin vessel burned off the coast of Antarctica Wednesday. Its 97 crew members were rescued by the Juvel, a Norwegian ship, about 55 kilometres from Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research base near the Antarctic peninsula.
The Kai Xin is now unmanned, and a navy tugboat left port in Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America, to tow the ship to harbour.
"The ship has been drifting in zigzags and circles at about 5 knots per hour. It's very close to glaciers and we've sent the tugboat in case it hits the coast causing an oil spill," said Capt Juan Villegas, maritime governor for Chile's portion of Antarctica.
The Kai Xin left port in Uruguay and Chilean officials don't know how much fuel it's carrying. Fog forced Chile's air force to cancel a flight on Thursday to check on its condition.
"The ship seems in good conditions from the photos we've seen," Villegas told The Associated Press. "The fire seems to have taken place at the engines and there's no risk of sinking."
A Panamanian-flagged Chinese ship, Skyfrost, also was nearing the area to help tow the ship, he said.
Officials at Olympic Seafood AS, owner of the Juvel, said they were part of the rescue of the Kai Xin, but downplayed their role.
"Yes, we took the Chinese crew onto our ship. Of course, we help people who are in distress," said Even T Remoey, the sales and marketing director of Olympic Seafood, based in Fosnavaag, a western Norwegian coastal town.
The 104-metre Chinese vessel was built in 1990, according to the website of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
The Kai Kin is operated by Shanghai Kaichuang Marine International, a company that specialises in deep-sea fishing, fisheries products and processing. The ship uses pelagic trawling for fishing and can sail in loose pack ice, according to the commission.
The Shanghai-based company could not immediately be reached for comment. The environmental group Greenpeace has said that the 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.
Greenpeace said the ship has authorisation to fish for krill.
China's krill market is growing due to strong demand for its use in fishmeal as well as medical and dietary products.
Greenpeace opposes Antarctic fishing for krill, saying it can affect the ecosystem because it is a pillar of the entire ocean's food chain.