A Chinese-flagged krill-fishing factory ship — one of about 50 authorized to fish in Antarctica — caught fire Wednesday about 35 miles off the continent’s northeast coast.
The problem facing authorities in Chile, whose navy and air force have responded to the accident, is the potential ecological impact if the 23-year-old stern trawler sinks.
The Kai Xin left port in Uruguay, but Chilean officials did not know how much fuel it was carrying, Capt. Juan Marcelo Villegas, maritime governor for Chile's portion of Antarctica, told The Associated Press.
The ecological risks to Antarctica have expanded with the increased number of vessels transiting the remote area for both fishing and tourism, issues covered in recent years by Soundings.
In November 2007, the M/S Explorer, the first cruise ship used specifically to sail the Antarctic Ocean, struck a submerged object and sank near the South Shetland Islands in the Southern Ocean.
The accident raised concerns about the growing Antarctic tourism trade, as reported by Soundings.
In December 2010, the 290-foot cruise liner Clelia II, carrying 88 passengers, encountered 50-knot winds and 30- to 35-foot seas in the Drake Passage, which runs between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands.
Click play to watch video of the Clelia II in 30-foot seas.
The ship returned safely to port, and passengers later said they feared for their lives. Click here for the Soundings report.
Officials monitoring the burning Kai Xin said the ship was not immediately at risk of sinking and that nearby vessels could tow it away from the Antarctic coast if necessary, according to an Associated Press report.
Officials were concerned that the unmanned ship was drifting dangerously close to glaciers.
“The ship has been drifting in zigzags and circles at about 5 knots,” Villegas told the Associated Press.
The Chilean navy dispatched a military tugboat from Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America, to tow the ship to harbor as long as it remains seaworthy, according to the Australian news site PerthNow.com.au.