Baskets with shrimps Oostduinkerke ©D. de Kievith
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer

Today, Oostduinkerke – about 20km down the coast from Oostende – is the only place in the world where horseback shrimp fishermen still ply the shallows along the coast for a special variety of grey shrimp. For this month's blog post, Emma decided to give them a hand.

August

Shrimp Fishermen - Oostduinkerke

It’s a dreary Monday morning and the square is quiet except for the occasional cry of gulls swooping out to sea. I look across the gently sloping beach, just 20 metres away, where sky and sand merge to form a seamless grey canvas. 

Then, suddenly, there it is: the unmistakable clip-clop of hooves. I turn to see five hefty Brabander horses traipsing down the road, fringes falling over their eyes like grungy teenagers. They haul their wooden carts, carrying wellied fishermen, into the street and stop in a line – snorting and stamping their feet, keen to get into the water. Guests taking their breakfast at the adjacent Albert I hotel gawp out the window, holding spoonfuls of cornflakes midway between bowl and mouth.

Shrimp fischermen on horseback - Oostduinkerke

The fishermen dismount and start adjusting harnesses and checking the girth-straps on their saddles. They don yellow oilskins and hats, smoke a cigarette, exchange a few words, then hop back onto the carts and trundle down the beach lapping at low tide. 

Nets are attached to the horses’ saddles, then the steeds wade into the water until the flat waves are washing around their bellies. The fisherman give a gentle tug of the reins and turn the horses parallel to the shore – the trawling has begun!

Shrimp fishermen on horseback - Oostduinkerke

Horseback shrimp fishermen once plied the shallows along the coast of northern France, the Netherlands and the south of England. Today, Oostduinkerke – about 20km down the coast from Oostende – is the only place in the world where it still takes place. These paardenvissers trawl the sea from late-June to early September for a special variety of grey shrimp, known as grijze garnalen, that turn up in Belgian specialities like tomate-crevettes (tomato-filled shrimp soaked in marie rose sauce).

Shrimp fishermen with basket - Oostduinkerke

When the nets grow heavy, the horses turn for shore. The men empty their catch of shimmering shrimp into wicker baskets and great metal sieves, sifting out the unwanted feisty crabs and juvenile fish, and throwing them to the scavenging seagulls.

Shrimps - Oostduinkerke

It’s cold, wet work but the fishermen are intensely proud of their old fishing methods and, happily, it’s rubbed off on the town’s younger men who have begun learning the trade to keep the tradition alive.

Shrimp fishermen basket with shrimps - Oostduinkerke
After two hours of trawling their baskets are brimming, so they unhook their nets, pile them onto the back of the carts and head back up the beach.
Shrimp fishermen with horse - Oostduinkerke

On special dates, the daily catch is cooked there and then on the beach and sold in white paper boxes for a few euros. Stupidly, I hadn’t timed our visit correctly, so we headed to a nearby restaurant and, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning, we ordered two plates of tomate-crevettes, savouring the small, sweet slivers of fish.

Info

Shrimp fisher on horseback - Oostduinkerke

The fishermen depart from Astridplein in Oostduinkerke, or a kilometre west towards Koksijde-Bad. A calendar listing the dates and fishing times is posted on www.paardevissers.be (Dutch only). Otherwise, ask the tourist information office: visitor.koksijde.be.

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