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Belgian shrimp fishermen are intangible cultural heritage

11:45 05/12/2013

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has added the horseback shrimp fishers of Oostduinkerke on the Flemish coast to the world list of intangible cultural heritage at its annual meeting in Azerbaijan yesterday.

The shrimp fishers ride their Brabant draft horses into the North Sea, dragging shrimp fishing nets behind them, which pick up grey shrimps from the sands under the shallow waters near shore. There are only a few left who continue the tradition, and they are the last of their kind. They were designated in Flanders as protected cultural heritage in 2009, and culture minister Joke Schauvliege submitted the practice for inclusion in Unesco’s list the following year.

The fishermen on horseback, who only appear in Oostduinkerke, are a popular tourist attraction, and they were honoured in July by being the subject of the last official visit by King Albert II before stepping down from the throne.

“The tradition gives the community a strong sense of collective identity and plays a central role in social and cultural events,” said Unesco in a statement, “including the two-day Shrimp Festival for which the local community spends months building floats, preparing street theatre and making costumes. … The shrimp fishers function on principles of shared cultural values and mutual dependence. Experienced shrimpers demonstrate techniques and share their knowledge of nets, tides and currents with beginners.” 

Oostduinkerke mayor Marc Vanden Bussche said his town had cherished the shrimp fishers since the 1950s, buying up land for a paddock for the horses and making plans for an information centre on the industry. “With the recognition of Unesco comes the responsibility to carry this craft over to succeeding generations,” he said. “We are proud that the committee had to spend so little time considering our candidacy.”

One of the fishermen told VRT news: “This has made me a very happy man. A true horseback fisherman loves the sea in the deepest of his heart, as well as what the sea brings, and his horse,” said 70-year-old Eddy Dhulster. “That’s the most important part.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The committee that decides on designations has members from 24 countries, including Belgium. Other Flemish heritage already on the list includes the Aalst carnival, the Ros Beiaard procession in Dendermonde, the procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, the annual market in Sint-Lievens-Houtem, the end-of-year bread and fire feast in Geraardsbergen and the art of falconry.

Written by Alan Hope