OOSTDUINKERKE, Belgium (Reuters) - As dying trades go, Belgium’s horseback shrimp fishery must be among the most arcane and outdated.
Men in bright yellow overalls and sou’-westers ride their plodding workhorses across the sands into the North Sea at low tide to trawl for shrimps in just the way that their forefathers have done for more than 500 years.
There are now fewer than a dozen left of the hundreds who once plied the same trade all around the North Sea — in France, the Netherlands and Britain.
Just as in 1500, the horses drag two large planks behind them that open out once in the water to reveal a net that scoops up the shrimps and any other fish lurking in the surf.
Then, it was coastal farmers who wanted the fish to use as fertilizer for their fields. Now those farms have been crowded out by far more lucrative seaside property development, and the horses have to be stabled inland.
“There are no farms any more. It’s just all buildings and tourists,” said Eddy d’Hulster, who has fished the shore at Oostduinkerke for decades.
The catch is now more likely to end up on a plate than a field, but prices are nowhere near enough to turn a profit.
Instead, Oostduinkerke’s tourist board supports the last outpost of the tradition because of the tourists it attracts.
“We are as a commune very proud of our fishermen. We try to help them in any way we can,” said Christiane Moncarey from the tourist board. “There are still men who like this type of horse and fishing. It’s a passion for them.”
Hordes of children and adults clamor for the shrimps as they are brought ashore.
The men throw a few pailfuls on to the beach for the children to gather up, then take the rest of the catch home to cook.
“Each fisherman has his own recipe to cook his shrimps. Normally, shrimps are cooked in sea water but the horseback fisherman uses fresh water. He adds salt and also a little something more,” said d’Hulster.
“It’s a secret of the fisherman. They all think they have the tastiest shrimps — but they are liars because mine are the most tasty.”
A few boys as young as 15 are learning the trade, but its future hardly looks rosy.
“We will see if they stay fishermen. You can’t be sure to have money. You must have another job. That is the difference. Twenty or 30 years ago you could live on it,” d’Hulster said.
You also have to find the right horse.
“The first time a horse sees the sea and the waves, you can see it running back. They don’t like it,” said d’Hulster.
Once a horse is found, it stays with the fisherman for life.
“There is such a love story between the horse and the fisherman. Once he has a horse that works, he is married to the horse. Sometimes we say we like our horses more than our wife.”
Additional reporting by Jan Vermeylen and Elaine Codogno