Shrimp Fishing by Horseback

Cyril Hofstein 2 June 2021

On the Flanders coast, a centuries-old tradition survives

“Good, you are on time. If we miss the tide, we won’t bring back any shrimp.” Dominique Vanden-driessche, one of the last paardenvissers—Dutch for horse fishermen—in Oostduinkerke, Belgium, is in such a hurry to leave that he definitely would not have waited for us if we had arrived late. It’s still dark. The sandy landscape is pastoral, with pretty, low houses.

Horseback fisherman

Almost daily between April and November, horseback fishermen set out in search of the “white gold” of Flanders.

Before the popularity of seaside tourism, people in the region were starving,” explains Dominique. “Nothing was growing properly. We were poor from one generation to the next, and the farmers had to fish for shrimp to make ends meet. Times were hard and so were the men. Sometimes, despite progress, and the madness of our times, I tell myself that nothing has really changed. You still have to fight to earn a living.”

"You still have to fight to earn a living"

With a steady hand, the young man—he’s 31—brings out Jako, an imposing Brabant, from his stall and prepares to harness him to his cart. In the pungent cold, the horse’s nostrils release two white plumes. At the age of six, this placid and powerful Belgian draft horse weighing almost a ton has been going to the sea only for a year, but he is already so used to the task that he could almost put himself in the shafts of his cart. With a soft voice and in a sung language known only to the two of them, Dominique guides Jako gently after harnessing him.

In a few minutes, everything is ready. It’s time for us to go. A walk of three kilometers awaits before we reach the seashore. Here in West Flanders, between De Panne and Nieuwpoort near the French border, the link that has for centuries united horses, men, and the North Sea has never been broken.

The streets of Oostduinkerke

The streets of Oostduinkerke, West Flanders, where the link that has for centuries united horses, men, and the North Sea has never been broken.

Almost every day from April to November, the last of the horseback fishermen set out at low tide in search of great shoals of shrimp, the “white gold” of Flanders. This tradition, unique in the world, has been going on for more than 500 years. Before the Second World War, this method of fishing was practiced throughout the region—in Belgium, northern France, the Netherlands, and southern England. But it has gradually fallen into oblivion, except here in Oostduinkerke, where since 2013 it has been listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Among the 20 or so horseback fishermen that the town still has, Dominique Vandendriessche is undoubtedly one of the most dedicated; alone or with his friend Katrien, he heads to the shoreline three or four times a week.

The catch is sorted so that the smallest shrimp are returned to the water to keep growing.

To reach the high dunes and the beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, Dominique’s route is always the same: he crosses the streets of the very chic residential seaside resort area of Koksijde, then heads toward the main boulevard. Residents often open their windows to greet the passage of the cart loaded with fishing equipment. (Here in Oostduinkerke, paardenvissers are so famous that statues in their image have been erected on the promenade along the shore to honor them.) Even the tram, which normally has the right-of-way, stops to let him pass. And motorists rarely lose their patience behind Jako, whose enormous, shod hooves squeak with every step on the asphalt.

"Residents often open their windows to greet the passage of the cart loaded with fishing equipment"

At low tide, the North Sea is nothing more than a thin slate-colored line on the sand. As we approach the water, dozens of gulls gather. “They are always waiting for us,” Dominique says with a laugh. “These birds know that they will soon be able to pounce on the small fish, crabs, and shrimp that will escape our net. It’s been this way for years. Nothing is ever wasted.”

Shrimp fishermen stay in shallow waters near the shore, pulling a funnel-shaped net behind them

Jako is now uncoupled from the cart and the fisherman, who has just adjusted his yellow raincoat, attaches the cables of a long funnel-shaped trawl net to Jako’s sides; it’s held open by two wooden panels with iron rings. About 30 meters long, the net is equipped with a chain, the end of which drags along the sand, creating vibrations that compel the crustaceans to jump inside. Then he attaches a wicker basket on either side, straddles his horse, and gently directs him into the waves. Fishing has begun.

Dominique first advances in a direction perpendicular to the beach before turning to move along the coast. Every half hour or so, the fishing stops and he returns to shore before the net becomes too heavy to pull. This is also an opportunity for Jako to take a breather.

Amid the shouting and bickering of the gulls, and with onlookers gathering, the fisherman opens the end of the trawl and pours his harvest into a sieve to make a first sorting. It’s almost all shrimp. While the smallest ones slip through the mesh and drop back into the shallow water, the future is darker for the small crabs and fish, which Dominique tosses aside: almost none escape the gluttony of seabirds.

Fisherman heading to the shore with horse

A few times a week, Dominique Vandendriessche heads to the shore to fish with Jako, his powerful but placid Belgian draft horse

It is when the water is coldest that shrimp are most abundant, and this morning, Dominique is not displeased to have gotten up so early. The tide will come back in a few hours, and he will repeat the same manoeuver before returning home to sort his catch and put Jako in the meadow for the rest of the day. After being washed, the shellfish will be cooked in a salted-water broth for about 10 minutes, then spread out on a rack and drained before being shelled by hand and then sold.

“I’m 31 years old and I’ve lived like this since I was a child,” says Dominique. “I started at a very young age with my father, who taught me everything. But more than the shrimp, it’s the horse that fascinates me. The horse and the work you can do with it.” He says that it is no longer possible, especially for a couple, to make a living from this work only: “On average, we bring back seven kilos of shrimp per fishing day, which we sell for 12 euros per kilo.”

Dominique  tends to  six-year-old Jako, who has been on the job for just a year

"On average, we bring back seven kilos of shrimp per fishing day"

“It’s a set price that we horseback fishermen have agreed on in order to avoid the supply-and-demand scenario of the boat fishermen. But it’s not enough. The boat fishermen bring back much larger quantities every day, and can often sell their shrimp for much more than we do.”

Fresh-cooked shrimp

To continue to make a living from his passion, Dominique went into debt to open his own farm-to-table takeaway restaurant, called Het Trekpaard, where you can taste specialties such as shrimp croquettes, bisques, or cassolettes. He also started a stable dedicated to Belgian draft horses and an equestrian educational center that offers horse-drawn carriage rides.

It’s a godsend for the city of Oostduinkerke, which organizes an annual shrimp festival with the participation of the Royal Order of Horse Fisherman (or Koninklijke Orde van de Paardenvisser); it normally takes place on the last weekend in June. Created in 1967, the Royal Order conducts research on the practice of horseback fishing and raises public awareness of the tradition. Because nobody here can imagine that the horseback fishermen of Oostduinkerke may one day disappear.

Dominique prepares his catch. These shrimp will be turned into tasty specialties such as croquettes and bisques that will be served at his small takeway restaurant

From Le Figaro (November 13, 2020), Copyright © 2020 by Le Figaro

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