Oostduinkerke, Belgium – The Last Horseback Shrimp Fishermen

An hour after low tide on a beautifully sunny and warm September day I kicked off my sandals and walked quickly through the sand to the shoreline of the North Sea.  Just down the beach, about 20 feet off the shore, I could spot the bright yellow slickers of two fishermen mounted on stocky Brabant draft horses.  Shoulder deep in the cold water, the horses walked with apparent ease as they steadily dragged their nets along behind.  Perched on simple wooden saddles, the fishermen smoked cigarettes and joked with each other, just a classic couple-of-dudes-fishing situation.  Except for that whole part where they are the last of just 15 people who are carrying on a 500 year old tradition.  No biggie.

To say I was impressed is an understatement.  I mean if there are horses involved I’m a pretty easy sell but I was absolutely spellbound by all of it.  The horses, those cool wicker baskets (can I get one of those for my house?), the weathered faces of the fishermen, the hand knotted shrimp nets, everything.  I could have watched for days.  After about 30 minutes or so the horses headed back for shore with their catch in tow.   The fishermen sorted out the odd crabs and fish to be left for the gulls and the tiny grey shrimp were placed in baskets for the short trip back up the beach.

There’s clearly a deep bond between these men, the sea, and their horses.  To hold on to a tradition like this for so long is a true testament to that.   Each pardenvisser carefully chooses a horse (most aren’t suited to the job) and fishes with the same mount for life.  It’s no longer profitable, as the shrimp are less abundant these days and there are obviously much easier ways to catch them.  With any luck, the tourist dollars will be enough to help another generation keep this tradition alive.

shrimp, grey shrimp, north sea, pardenvisser, horse


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