At dawn the beach of Oostduinkerke is abandoned, the seas calm. There is little wind, but the air is cool. The only sounds are the soft, distant creak of wagon wheels and the gentle lapping of the ocean. The shrimp fishermen are perched with slipshod ease, riding across the sand on the edge of their low wooden carts. As they pass, the hooves of their giant Brabant horses leave deep, half-moon impressions in the sand.
Far beyond, the first rays of morning light begin to streak across the horizon, trailing ribbons of color that bleed into the inky sky. But the fishermen take no notice. Donning their boots and yellow oilskins, they adjust their horses’ harnesses, preparing for another morning out along the shoals.
The horse fisherman of Oostduinkerke in West-Flanders, Belgium, have been plying for grey shrimp between the underwater sandbanks of the North Sea for generations. Today, only 12 households in the resort town continue the tradition, which takes place twice weekly throughout the year (excepting the winter months). Fishing is done an hour and a half before low tide, so the fishermen must have a deep understanding of the tide’s ebb and flow—both to ensure the best fishing and the safety of their horses in the water.
“The strong Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the surf in Oostduinkerke, parallel to the coastline, pulling funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards. A chain dragged over the sand creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net. Shrimpers place the catch (which is later cooked and eaten) in baskets hanging at the horses’ sides.”
In the early years of the 20th century and before, light draft horses were sufficient to pull the small nets that were once commonplace. After the first World War, when horses were scarce, the fishermen rode mules into the surf. But since the adoption of the large, funnel-shaped trawler nets in more recent decades, the locals have turned to the native Brabant horses, prized for their enormous strength, pulling power, and calm, reliable dispositions.
During a day at sea, the fishermen break every 30 minutes or so to give their horses a chance to rest and to unload their catch. Crabs, jellyfish, and other critters are returned to the ocean, and the shrimp are placed in the fishermen’s baskets. Each horse returns home carrying an average of 22 to 44 pounds of shrimp a day.
For more on the incredible horse fishermen of Oostduinkerke, check out the UNESCO video below: