New Zealand is urging Japan to allow a Greenpeace vessel to tow its stricken whaling ship out of Antarctic waters.
The fire on the Nisshin Maru could scupper the whaling mission
New Zealand's Conservation Minister Chris Carter said it is imperative the Nisshin Maru is moved to prevent any pollution of the pristine area.
Japan has refused the offer, saying the ship - which has been disabled by a fire - is no threat to the environment.
The Japanese whalers have had a number of confrontations at sea with anti-whaling activists in recent days.
One crew member is still missing after the fire broke out on board the Nisshin Maru - an 8,000-tonne processing ship - just before daybreak on Thursday.
The blaze is now under control after some of the crew remained on board to try to contain the flames.
There are fears, however, that the ship could start leaking fuel oil into the Ross Sea and damage the immediate environment.
New Zealand's Conservation Minister Chris Carter said he had spoken to the Japanese authorities about the need for urgent action, calling the ship "dead in the water".
He pointed out that the ship is just 60 miles (100 km) from the world's biggest Adelie penguin colony at Cape Adare.
"It is imperative the Nisshin Maru is towed further away from the pristine Antarctic coast, the neighbouring penguin colony and the perilous ice floes," he told reporters.
Mr Carter said the most immediate solution was to use the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, a converted Soviet tug, or a US icebreaker.
Greenpeace urged Japan to accept its offer. "This is not a time to play politics from behind a desk in Tokyo," said Karli Thomas, from on board the Esperanza.
But Japanese officials said there was no immediate cause for concern.
"There's no threat of oil leakage at all, and no worries over environmental pollution from the Nisshin Maru," said Kenji Masuda, of the Fisheries Agency.
"We are awaiting natural fire extinction as we closed all hatches in the vessel."
A spokesman for the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which is carrying out the whaling, said other ships in the fleet could tow it from the area if required.
"The main priority is to locate the missing sailor, clear the smoke then decide whether to move the Nisshin Maru or repair it on the spot," Glenn Inwood told the Associated Press.
The whaling fleet left for the Antarctic in December, and planned to hunt 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales until mid-March.
It has been involved in several clashes with the protest group the Sea Shepherd, in recent days, leading Japanese officials to accuse the activists of behaving like pirates.
The Sea Shepherd's vessels were heading back to port for refuelling, when the fire on the Nisshin Maru broke out.
The ICR admits the whaling mission is now up in the air while it waits to see if the Nisshin Maru - the only ship in the fleet able to process whale carcasses - is able to continue.