Belgium's horseback shrimpers threatened by dwindling catch

KOKSIJDE, Belgium, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Belgium's traditional horseback shrimp fishermen say they are struggling to keep a centuries-old tradition alive because warming temperatures have lured other creatures closer to shore.

The tradition, recognized by the United Nations, dates back to the 16th century. Fishermen, riding horses with fishing nets attached to their saddles, trawl across the beach hoping to catch shrimp.

But they say the influx of different species as the waters warm crowds out their catch - meaning there are fewer shrimps, something they put down to climate change.

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Belgium's horseback shrimping tradition
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Belgium's horseback shrimping tradition
Third-generation Belgian shrimp fisherman Xavier Vanbillemont rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fishermen ride carthorses to haul nets out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Belgian shrimp fisherman selects freshly boiled shrimp after fishing in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke August 16, 2011. At the end of the fishing, the fishermen and their mounts leave the water to empty the net and to put the contents into two wicker baskets fixed on each side of the horse. This traditional method of catching shrimp along the North Sea coast, which dates back to some 500 years, attracts tourists every summer. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)
Belgian shrimp fisherman Bernard Debruyne rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fishermen drive their carriages on the beach in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fisherman Gunther Vanbleu rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
A statue representing a Belgian shrimp fisherman is seen on the beach at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
68-year-old Belgian shrimp fisherman Eddy D' Hulster, with 47 years of experience in shrimp fishing, stands next to his carthorse after catching shrimp during low tide in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke August 16, 2011. At the end of the fishing, the fishermen and their mounts leave the water to empty the nets and to put the contents into two wicker baskets fixed on each side of the horse. This traditional method of catching schrimp along the North Sea coast, which dates back in tradition to some 500 years, attracts tourists every summer. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)
Third-generation Belgian shrimp fisherman Xavier Vanbillemont rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
A Belgian shrimp fishermen drives his carriage on the beach in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herma
Belgian shrimp fisherman Pieter De Dier rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fisherman Gunther Vanbleu rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fisherman Gunther Vanbleu rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fishermen ride carthorses to haul nets out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian shrimp fishermen ride their horses in the sea in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
A Belgian shrimp fisherman rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
A Belgian shrimp fisherman rides a carthorse to haul a net out in the sea to catch shrimps during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium July 3, 2015. At the end of each fishing session, the fishermen and their mounts leave the water to empty the net's contents into two wicker baskets fixed on each side of the horse. This traditional method of catching shrimps along the North Sea coast, which dates back to some 500 years, attracts tourists every summer. In 2013, Unesco recognized shrimp fishing on horseback as an intangible cultural heritage. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Shrimps are seen in a basket after shrimp fishing during low tide at the coastal town of Oostduinkerke July 12, 2013. At the end of the fishing season, fishermen and their mounts leave the water to empty the net and to put the contents into two wicker baskets fixed on each side of the horse. This traditional method of catching shrimps along the North Sea coast, which dates back to some 500 years, attracts tourists every summer. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL)
A Belgian shrimp fisherman boils his catch after fishing in the coastal town of Oostduinkerke August 16, 2011. At the end of the fishing, the fishermen and their mounts leave the water to empty the net and to put the contents into two wicker baskets fixed on each side of the horse. This traditional method of catching shrimp along the North Sea coast, which dates back to some 500 years, attracts tourists every summer. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)
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Third generation fisherman Xavier Vanbillemont said: "Now there are hundreds (of jellyfish) as opposed to one or two when I was younger," he said.

Belgium is facing one of the hottest summers on record with little rain and temperatures regularly exceeding 86 Fahrenheit.

As many traditional trades do, horseback fishing has become a tourist attraction.

The shrimp fishermen continue to fish during the summer months, despite it being the worst time to fish, because it attracts hundreds of tourists.

"It's magnificent. We (tourists) are not used to seeing horses in the sea fishing shrimps," said French tourist Ben Bouvy after witnessing the spectacle.

In 2013, UNESCO designated the tradition as intangible cultural heritage, pointing out the "strong sense of collective identity" horseback shrimp fishing has given the community and the central role it plays in cultural events.

Despite the hardships, fishermen vow to keep the trade going. Nothing else compares, they say.

"Ships can catch a lot more shrimps than me but I prefer fishing with my horse, because he's my best friend," said Vanbillemont.

(Reporting by Verity Crane; Writing by Julia Echikson; Editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alison Williams)

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