In December 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) added the fishermen on horseback of Oostduinkerke on the Flemish coast of Belgium to the world list of intangible cultural heritage.
Shrimp fishing on horseback is a form of traditional craftsmanship closely connected with nature. Good knowledge of the sea, the beach and sea interface, and a high level of trust and respect for the horse are essential.
Shrimp fishing on horseback is practised in the beach and surf zone of Oostduinkerke. This seaside town has been a part of the municipality of Koksijde since 1978 and is situated on the Belgian North Sea coast, 10 kilometres from the French border.
Fishing for shrimp with a horse-drawn drag net in the shallow water is only possible on a flat, very gently sloping coastline. The Flemish Coast is also the biotope in which the grey shrimp, Crangon crangon, is found in abundance.
When fishing, the horse walks breast-deep in the water, parallel to the coastline. The fishermen use funnel-shaped nets, held open by two wooden boards. A chain is dragged over the sand creating shockwaves which cause the shrimp to jump up and be caught in the net. Pulling the net, which is 7 x 10 meters, requires the tremendous strength that Brabant draft horses provide.
Fishing is interrupted every half-hour in order to return to the beach, empty the net and sift the catch. The shrimp are then placed in the baskets that hang at the horses' sides. Later, the shrimp are cooked in fresh water.
A whole series of practices, artefacts and instruments are connected to this traditional craftsmanship, which is supported by the households and families of the shrimp fishermen and, by extension, the community of Oostduinkerke and Koksijde as a whole. It is a paradigmatic example of a dynamic and sustainable approach to nature, and to culture, that is transmitted from generation to generation.
Twelve households in Oostduinkerke are actively engaged in shrimp fishing: each has its own speciality, such as weaving nets, or an extensive knowledge of Brabant draft horses. The tradition gives the community a strong sense of collective identity and plays a central role in social and cultural events. This includes the two-day Shrimp Festival for which the local community spends months building floats, preparing street theatre and making costumes. The shrimp parade, and a contest involving hundreds of children being initiated into shrimp catching, attract over 10,000 visitors every year.
The shrimp fishers function based on principles of shared cultural values and mutual dependence. But significantly, experienced shrimpers demonstrate techniques and share their knowledge of nets, tides and currents with beginners.
Dr Maja Wolny, Director, Nationaal Visserijmuseum Oostduinkerke