“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.”
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.
According to UNESCO:
“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.”