Page last updated at 02:22 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Japanese whaler reported missing

A Japanese whaling ship, archive image
Japan's whaling hunts attract regular international criticism

Rescuers are searching for a Japanese sailor reported missing from a whaling ship in the Antarctic.

Hajime Shirasaki, 30, is believed to have fallen overboard in freezing conditions south of New Zealand.

The authorities have said there is little chance that Mr Shirasaki will be found alive after spending several hours in the water.

Japan's controversial whaling fleet is hoping to catch 935 minke and 50 fin whales in this year's hunting season.

Mr Shirasaki was reported missing after he failed to turn up for duty on board the Kyoshin Maru No 2 whaling ship.

'One hour'

The crew alerted the New Zealand authorities but were told that any aerial search of the remote area would come too late.

"We were able to establish the missing man was only wearing overalls when he went into the water," said Mike Roberts of New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre.

He said the maximum survival time in the Antarctic waters, with temperatures as low as 0C, was one hour.

New Zealand coastguard ships and other Japanese vessels were travelling to the area to help in the search.

If confirmed, Mr Shirasaki's would be the second Japanese whaling death in two years, after a sailor died in a fire at sea in 2007.

Japan claims its controversial whale hunting expeditions are legal and for scientific research, but opponents say this is a cover for banned commercial whaling.

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