The French Navy (Marine Nationale) polar patrol vessel L’Astrolabe made her first port call in Cape Town on Tuesday 19 June as part of its inaugural patrol mission to the southern Indian Ocean.
L’Astrolabe (P800), an ice-breaking vessel designed to operate in a Sub-Antarctic and Antarctic environment, was built through an unusual partnership between the TAAF (the French Southern and Antarctic territories), the IPEV (French Polar Institute Paul Emile Victor), the French Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research and the French Navy.
This partnership relies on the creation of a public interest group (GIP) involving the TAAF (vessel owner) and the French Navy (vessel operator) under agreements with the IPEV (in charge of Antarctic logistic operations) for logistics and support to scientific bases in the Antarctic Ocean during the austral summer (120 days per year) and for French Navy sovereignty missions (245 days a year).
Delivered in September 2017 and based in Port-des-Galets, La Réunion Island, the new vessel performs two types of missions. During the Austral summer, it leads an Antarctic Logistics Support Mission during which it transports freight and passengers between Australia and the French scientific bases in Terre-Adélie Territory. During the rest of the year, L’Astrolabe carries out sovereignty missions in the South Indian Ocean, namely fisheries control, fighting against illicit activities, trafficking and protection of the environment.
L’Astrolabe recently completed its first logistic support mission to the French Antarctic stations. Commander François Trystram, Officer Commanding the vessel, explained that these summer missions involve four to five voyages between Hobart in Tasmania and Antarctica, commencing in October or November. Transporting cargo and scientists, Hobart is used as a temporary base as it is a direct route south to the Dumont d’Urville Station in Adélie Land, Antarctica.
In order to prepare him for operations in the Antarctic, Trystram underwent specialised training to navigate in ice at a civilian institute before embarking on the original 1986-built icebreaker L’Astrolabe for a month to gain additional experience.
France acknowledges the importance of patrolling its large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and patrol ships are based around the world where France has an interest. They recognise that not only are regular patrols important, coverage of the entire EEZ is critical as well.
The Patagonian toothfish is an important economic resource for the French Crozet and Kerguelen archipelago, but as Trystram notes, France does not have any issues with illegal fishing at the moment. Trystram says that ten years ago, they often encountered illegal fishing vessels and it was difficult getting them out of the French economic zone.
“Now it’s more of us going there to show we are there and that they don’t come back” he says. “We make sure there is no illegal fishing in this area.”
This is of critical importance to South Africa with islands in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean such as the Prince Edward Islands and Marion Island which have not been provided with this vital physical presence and deterrence.
An Inter-Governmental Agreement between France and South Africa on cooperation for the surveillance of the South African (Marion and Prince Edward’s Islands) and French (Crozet and Kerguelen archipelago) territories in the Southern Indian Ocean was signed during President Jacob Zuma’s State visit to Paris in July 2016. This agreement allows monitoring and intervening in each country’s sovereign waters around these distant islands particularly to face the problem of illegal fishing as well as enhancing scientific research.
However, the agreement is still to be implemented as a rectification needs to be signed off and thus South Africa will not benefit from L’Astrolabe passing close to the South African territories during her voyage south. In terms of a similar treaty between France and Australia, two Australian fisheries inspectors will join the L’Astrolabe in Cape Town so that Australian territories will also be monitored during the voyage.
As a result of spending over 300 days at sea per year, two crews man the vessel, with exchanges taking place every two or three months, depending on the schedule. The standard crew number depends on the mission, with only 21 for Antarctic logistic voyages, increasing to 31 for fishery patrols. The additional 10 crew members include the boarding party to check fishing vessels found in the area.
Another difference in the two missions is that small arms for self-defence are carried when undertaking fishery patrols. Before sailing south, L’Astrolabe was fitted with weapons in Reunion, including 12.7 mm machineguns.
Designed to sail continuously in ice up to 70 cm thickness, the 72 m (236 ft) long vessels is capable of accommodating up to 60 persons on board and carrying 1,200 tons of cargo. She has a helipad and operates a civilian helicopter from IPEV logistic missions, with space below deck to accommodate two helicopters.
L’Astrolabe departs Cape Town on Sunday 24 June for its one month patrol, taking advantage of the prevailing west to east seas and winds.