WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- New Zealand will not be able to quickly rescue anyone who gets lost or hurt if clashes erupt between animal rights activists and Japanese whalers off the north Antarctic coast, the foreign minister said Saturday.
The whaling fleet left Japan earlier this month and is expected to focus its hunt for about 1,000 whales in the Ross Sea, where New Zealand is responsible for search-and-rescue missions under international law. Animal rights group Sea Shepherd has vowed to disrupt the hunt.
Last year, a Japanese crewman died in a fire on a ship, an anti-whaling vessel twice collided with a whaling ship, and two protesters spent several hours lost at sea in freezing conditions. New Zealand airlifted a Japanese whaler who fell gravely ill in its territorial waters.
If someone is hurt in a confrontation between whalers and protesters, they will have to depend on other ships in the area for help because New Zealand does not have the capacity to deploy vessels to the Ross Sea in anticipation of trouble, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.
"New Zealand will not be able to deal quickly with incidents where someone is required to be rescued," McCully said.
Last year Australian customs vessels shadowed the Japanese whaling fleet as it hunted in Antarctic waters south of the country. Both nations have decided against that tack this season, McCully said.
In an interview with National Radio earlier Saturday, McCully appeared to shrug off his country's search-and-rescue responsibilities in the icy waters, saying New Zealand "cannot underwrite the welfare and safety of every individual who is in the Ross Sea."
But he told The AP that New Zealand will "always try to fulfill our obligations to rescue anyone in difficulty," although "that doesn't run to trying to locate vessels in anticipation of trouble."
In February 2007, the Japanese government asked New Zealand to help a crewman who fell gravely ill near the Ross Sea. A New Zealand rescue helicopter airlifted him to a hospital. Then-Conservation Minister Chris Carter said New Zealand had a humanitarian obligation to help when a life was at risk.
In the same month, a Japanese whaling ship and a vessel owned by animal rights group Sea Shepherd collided twice in Antarctic waters. Separately, two protesters were lost in sea mist and snow for several hours, and a Japanese whaler died in a fire aboard a whaling vessel. In the latter incident, the Japanese vessel declined an offer of assistance from a ship belonging to the environmental group Greenpeace.