Belgian horsemen fish for shrimp, UNESCO recognition
By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, dpaOOSTDUINKERKE, Belgium--Every few days, Bernard Debruyne slips into bright yellow waders, saddles his Belgian draft horse Jorka and rides into the last place you would expect to find an 850-kilogram equine — fishing for shrimp in the North Sea.
August 19, 2013, 12:02 am TWN
The spectacle has been a boon for the Belgian seaside town of Oostduinkerke, attracting droves of tourists.
But for its 12 horseback fishermen, there is even more at stake: Preserving a centuries-old tradition that has died out almost everywhere else.
“You need to have a love for the sea and for the horse,” said the 50-year-old Debruyne, who has been fishing on horseback since he was a teenager.
“Often we like our horses more than our wives,” he added, grinning.
“A horse doesn't talk back.”
The powerful draft breed is strong enough to pull fishing nets attached to wooden planks through belly-high sea water, gathering the tiny shrimp as they emerge from their hiding place in the sand.
The crustaceans, known as crangon crangon or grey shrimp, are a staple of Belgian cuisine, used in everything from salads and stuffed tomatoes to croquettes.
“You can find shrimp everywhere in the restaurants here,” said Yvonne Koenig, a tourism official with the Koksijde municipality, to which Oostduinkerke belongs. “It's definitely part of the character.”
The practice of using horses for fishing is believed to date back to the 16th century in Belgium. It was also reportedly common at one time on the Dutch, French and British coasts.
The horse has to be very gradually introduced to the sea. The main issue is the unusual — and for a horse, scary — sounds that the water can make, said 68-year-old retiree Marius Dugardein, who switched to horseback fishing in 2000 after a 46-year career at sea.
Historically passed on from father to son, the all-male custom never was a main source of income or food, but rather a side activity for those who already used horses, such as farmers or coal salesmen, according to Koenig.
“It was all about increasing productivity,” she said.
It still remains largely a hobby — Debruyne's main occupation is to help produce towels at a textile factory.
Nowadays, the fishermen are satisfied if an average catch amounts to 8 kilograms in a given year, Koenig said. The fishing is only done at low tide and the peak times are April to June and September to November - the warmer the water, the less shrimp there are.
In the summer, it is all about the tourists, with the horseback fishermen shortening their fishing time to only about half-an-hour and offering cooked shrimp at the square overlooking the beach.