Russian fishing ship lists badly near Antarctica; ice complicates rescue efforts

Friday, December 16, 2011

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- A Russian fishing vessel with 32 crew members was in trouble and taking on water near Antarctica on Friday. Heavy sea ice was hampering rescue efforts, and officials said it could be four or five days before anybody reaches the ship to try to rescue the crew.

The Sparta was listing at 13 degrees next to the Antarctic ice shelf in the Ross Sea, according to Maritime New Zealand. The agency said that the crew was safe and was throwing cargo overboard to lighten the ship, and that some of the crew had boarded lifeboats as a precautionary measure.

The ship apparently has a hole in the hull, said Andrew Wright, executive secretary of the Australian-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which has licensed the Sparta to catch toothfish in the Southern Ocean. Wright said he didn't know what caused the hole, although he added that an iceberg "would be a good candidate."

"It's a very remote, unforgiving environment," he said.

The crew -- made up of 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and one Ukrainian -- was pumping water out of the vessel, Maritime New Zealand said in a statement.

The Sparta, which is 157 feet long, sent a distress call early Friday. Maritime New Zealand said heavy ice in the Southern Ocean would make it difficult for other ships to reach the vessel.

The Sparta's sister ship Chiyo Maru No. 3 was 290 nautical miles away and heading toward the stricken vessel but had no capacity to cut through sea ice, the agency said. A New Zealand vessel, the San Aspiring, had some ice-cutting ability and was also en route, but was four or five days away. A third vessel was just 19 nautical miles away, but it was hemmed in by heavy ice and unable to move toward the Sparta.

Ramon Davis, who is coordinating rescue efforts for Maritime New Zealand, said a C-130 Hercules plane that arrived from Antarctica flew over the scene to assess ice conditions in the area in order to speed up the rescue efforts. But Davis said the aircraft would not be able to pick up the crew.

Davis said there were no helicopters in the area and that another vessel remained the most viable option for trying to rescue the crew.

"It is possible the crew will have a fairly long wait for rescue," he said.

The crew has some emergency immersion suits that could keep them alive for a time in freezing water, Maritime New Zealand said.

The weather in the area was calm, with temperatures a relatively mild 37 degrees.

Wright said the Sparta's fishing license took effect Dec. 1 and lasts 12 months, although typically most fishing is done over the Antarctic summer -- which runs from December through February -- until ships reach their quotas.

Toothfish are often marketed in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass and fetch high prices. Wright said the catch is strictly regulated by the commission and that the Sparta had been reporting its catch on a daily basis. He said that before Friday, the ship hadn't indicated in its reports that it was having any technical problems.

Commission records list the captain of the Sparta, which was built in 1988, as Oleg Pavlovich Starolat, who is Russian.

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