Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 19:11 UK

Backing for Antarctic ship review

M/S Explorer (Image: AP)
The M/S Explorer sinking acted as a wake-up call to act, say campaigners

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has invited nations to submit proposals to limit shipping's impact on Antarctica's unique environment.

The IMO's environment committee recognised campaigners' fears that the continent's waters were at risk from the rising number of ships in the area.

Environmentalists said the sinking of the M/S Explorer in 2007 was a wake-up call to tighten rules in the region.

The meeting also agreed to curb emissions from commercial vessels.

A paper submitted by a coalition of environmental groups called for the IMO to ban ships fuelled by heavy oil or without reinforced hulls from the area's waters.

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It also called for restrictions on sewage and waste water discharges to be tightened.

"Everyone that spoke at the meeting was supportive of the paper," said Sian Prior, a spokeswoman for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).

"I think it was generally agreed that more needed to be done about shipping in Antartica," she told BBC News.

"The challenge now is to come back with concrete measures that need to be done."

Toll of tourism

Figures from the coalition show that the number of tourists visiting the White Continent have increased five-fold over the past 15 years.

Nisshin Maru and support vessels. Image: Greenpeace
November 2006: tourist ship M/V Lyubov Orlova runs aground in South Shetlands
January 2007: the M/V Nordkapp, also carrying tourists, spills fuel during a grounding
February 2007: Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru (above) suffers a serious fire, eventually limping back to port
November 2007: M/S Explorer, holed probably by an iceberg, sinks off the Antarctic Peninsula, with 100 people rescued
December 2007: yet another tourist vessel, the M/V Fram, loses power and drifts into an iceberg
December 2007: fishing boat Argos Georgia drifts among ice floes for 15 days after losing power

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators show that 37,552 tourists visited Antarctica during 2006-07, the majority arriving by sea.

ASOC is concerned that many of the vessels carrying them are not ice-strengthened. This makes serious accidents more likely, and increases the risk of an oil spillage if a ship gets into trouble.

They have documented six incidents in little more than a year which carried a risk of major contamination, the most notable being the holing of the M/S Explorer - probably by an iceberg - which resulted in the vessel sinking and an international rescue mission for passengers and crew.

Antarctica is the unique home to several varieties of penguin, an important base for others such as seals, and a vital feeding ground for whales.

A spokesman for the IMO said the committee had discussed the issue, and called on nations to submit proposals to address the concerns outlined in the paper.

The five-day meeting held in London also approved plans to amend regulations to reduce emissions from ships.

The main change would lead to a reduction in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the world's 50,000 strong fleet.

The regulations have been ratified by 49 nations, which account for almost three-quarters of the globe's merchant vessels.

The IMO has also established a working group to look at ways to curb greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.

It is scheduled to complete its work in 2009, in time for the IMO to submit its findings and recommendations to a key UN climate conference.

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