Oostduinkerke, along Belgium’s west coast on the North Sea, is the only place in Europe where the trade of horseback fishing for shrimp is still practiced. The brown shrimp (Crangon crangon), or crevette grise or grijze garnaal as they are known in French and Flemish respectively, have a sandy, grayish-brown color and are found in shallow waters. They are tpically 30-50mm long, although individuals up to 90mm have been recorded. The shrimp feed nocturnally, and during the day, they remain buried in the sand to escape predatory birds and fish, with only their antennae protruding.
The shrimp are fished for 2-3 hours a day, during low tide, usually between the months of March and May and again in September, at Schipgatduinen (a precious but fragile natural reserve of 45 hectares) and near Groenendijk. Fishermen ride the horses on wooden saddles that are attached to large nets that drag behind the horses. The net is kept open horizontally by two boards, so that the bottom of the net is dragged on the sand while its upper part floats above. This method is the same that has been used for generations, though today nets are usually 8 meters wide, compared to 4 meters in the past, and made with more durable nylon. The large, strong horses (including breeds such as the Brabant draft horse) continue until the water reaches the top of their legs. Every now and then, the fishermen and their horses will return to the shore to empty their nets and deposit their catch in the baskets hung from each side of the horse.
In December 2013, UNESCO added shrimp fishing on horseback in Oostduinkerke to their list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Shrimp caught by fishermen on horseback are exceptionally fresh and are a true delicacy when cooked, and brown shrimp enjoys great popularity in Belgium and its neighboring countries. It is the basis of the dish tomate-crevette, where the shrimp are mixed with mayonnaise and served in a hollowed-out uncooked tomato. The shrimp croquette is another Belgian specialty; the shrimp are in the interior of the battered croquette along with melted cheese. Fresh unpeeled brown shrimp are often served as a snack accompanying beer, typically a sour ale or Flemish red such as Rodenbach.
In earlier times, this trade was scattered along the entire North Sea, where the gently sloping beach allowed it. Archives in Bruges dating back to 1510 report that horseback shrimp fishing was done in these times following the seynevissen technique (fishing with a seine net drawn by two horses). In the Cistercian abbey Ter Duinen in the municipality of Koksijde, the accountant of the abbey recorded in his management book in 1564 expenses for seynen (nets) and related items. Cistercians only occasionally replaced seafood with meat dishes, on fixed holidays. So, even though the Cistercian order did not preform horseback shrimp fishing, it supported the local practice. Still today, during the last weekend of June, the tradition of horseback shrimp fishing is highlighted during the local Shrimp Festival.
By 2014 there were only 12 active horseback shrimp fishers. Their numbers have fluctuated throughout the years. In 1785 there were 27 horseback fishermen in the contemporary area of Koksijde. In 1905 there were 15 registered horseback fishermen, after 1918 the number went back to 20, and around the 1940s it reached 40. Without younger generations to continue this tradition, this fishing method and a local supply of brown shrimp may be lost.
Image: Marta Messa