Étoile Polaire

Étoile Polaire

Nothing beats experience

One of France’s top sardine fishermen, Patrice Petillon, has been making plans to retire, and these include both upgrading his purse seiner and finding a successor to take his place. We caught up with him to find out more about his plans and how small-scale purse seining has changed over the years.

Kim Hansen

A few years ago he took on young fisherman William Chaligné as an apprentice. Still a few years short of his thirtieth birthday, William has worked with Patrice on the Etoile Polaire for ten years and is now the boat’s co-owner.

‘For the moment, William and I are equal partners,’ Patrice Petillon said, adding that he plans to hand over the remaining shares in the boat. ‘William is a good fisherman and he works in a way that continues the tradition of what I and my father learned, and I’m proud to be able to share this with him.’

Étoile Polaire in the construction hall at the Piriou shipyard in Concarneau, the boat's home port

As Part of the process, Etoile Polaire has been through a major refit. The 15 metre, GRP-hulled boat was built at CNB in 1987, and was overdue an upgrade. Naval architect Coprexma handled the design, and the work was done at the Piriou Naval Services yard in Concarneau.

During the refit the electronic, electrical and hydraulic systems were all overhauled, with the wheelhouse was raised and the deck layout modernised to improve the boat’s ergonomics and comfort for the crew. Etoile Polaire’s tanks were centred and upgraded with improved insulation and options for storing catches in containers instead of in bulk.

The electronics on board were upgraded and new transducers fitted on the hull for the array of sonars and sounders, while an anti-roll system was fitted to slow dampen vessel motion, improving transducer performance and fish detection.

Étoile Polaire being craned back into the water at the end of the refit

‘We have Koden and Furuno high- and medium-frequency sonars, and three Furuno sounders,’ Patrice Petillon said. ‘The electronics have made a significant contribution to developing our working practices, which remains a traditional and responsible fishery. The purse seine catches fish that can be released alive at sea if not marketable, and so this fishery does not generate discards.’

‘Nothing beats experience. Fishing varies according to the areas and seasons, and we know when and where we can expect to see certain fish and not others. We fish for sardine and horse mackerel, as well as some anchovies and mackerel. To make this work, a mix of everything is needed. The fishfinders are no use without the experience of the skipper who uses them, and it’s important to have good guidance. So William has with 25 years of experience supporting him as he starts out.’

Everything through the auction

He commented that a noticeable change in the last few years is that the sardines and anchovies are slightly smaller.

‘The scientists tell us that in the Bay of Biscay it’s biomass that’s important. What we can say is that in the past we fished mainly 10-20 per kilo and today it’s mainly between 20 and 30 per kilo – which is good for the processing market which is highly demanding.’

Etoile Polaire operates from Concarneau and all of its fish is sold at auction, which Patrice Petillon sees as the best way to sell as the auction provides the genuine price of the fish.

‘Selling direct tends to distort the market,’ he said, adding that Etoile Polaire’s landings are split roughly equally three ways, going to processors, the fresh market and for freezing.

The same purse seine gear is used for all species, and Etoile Polaire fishes a 350 metre purse seine with a 70 metre depth. This provides a practical maximum working depth of 40 metres, and he said that from the surface down to 30 metres is the important area.

Étoile Polaire at the quayside in Concarneau, ready to resume fishing

‘You have to be sure that your net is fishing effectively down to 30 metres,’ he said.

‘We have kept the same purse seine. Compared to the gears we worked thirty years ago, there have been some improvements, but it hasn’t changed a great deal in terms of length or depth. There have also been some big improvements in terms of deck equipment and now there is much less physical effort for the crew. Everything is mechanised, and this is one of the key points in modernising Etoile Polaire.’

‘The refit and modernisation give the crew more comfort, and there are improvements to the quality of the fish as well as making discharging easier,’ he said.

‘Purse seining is a fine way of fishing, primarily because it treats the stocks responsibly. At a human level, this is the best job for a fisherman, with the quality of the work we do and we can take pride in a magnificent product.’