Places to visit | Fish and seafood dishes


19th century: Dunkerque fishermen welcomed back from Iceland

The tall masted Dunkerque fishing ships would lie idle in dock all winter - or carry cargoes like salt and fruit until next spring.

The Past
In 1713 Louis XIV signed a peace treaty in which he agreed (amongst other things) to fill in the harbour at Dunkerque, which had been a base for the successful "pirate" Jean Bart. The desperate people of this sandy infertile coast had to turn to deep-sea fishing to make a living.

This started a yearly tradition in which thousands of fishermen from the ports of northern France would set sail in March for the dangerous herring fishing grounds off Iceland. Their departure was marked by riotous festivals - which are still commemorated in the port towns today, notably Dunkerque.

The lucky ones would return in August and September.

The ports of this coastline have access to the North Sea, the Channel, and the Atlantic - so fishing has been an important part of the region's livelihood for centuries.

1. Gravelines - the hulls of larger ships are cleaned in winter. 2. Calais - fishing around the port. 3. Etaples - the men are away for Christmas, following the herring shoals further down Channel; but smaller boats still catch some small fish to be sold by the women on the quayside

Today's Fishing industry
lobster pot  
1. Etaples' inshore fishermen land their catches of lobsters and shellfish daily 2. Selecting fresh fish in Etaples market. 3. Wonderful variety of fresh shellfish in Etaples fish market

There are far fewer fishermen, because catches have dwindled thanks to over-fishing and competition from giant "factory ships" and their ocean-going trawlers. European attempts to conserve fish stocks have led to restrictions on each country's total catch, and the number of fishing boats that are permitted.

Landing the catch at Boulogne

Coastal fishing at Wissant

Boulogne - No.1 fishing port
There is a substantial fishing fleet at Boulogne, France's largest fishing port - including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as about 160 smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats. A third of France's fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation's tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish-based ready meals.

Other fishing ports
here are smaller fleets working from the harbours of Etaples, Calais, Dunkerque and Gravelines, which have long histories of fishing. You can still see fishermen setting off to fish in coastal waters off the beaches of Wissant and Ambleteuse - where boats are towed into the shallow sea by tractor.

Places to visit:
MAREIS - interactive exhibition about working fishermen, Etaples
Etaples - harbour, fish market and fish restaurants
Herring-curing sheds - near Gravelines
Maison du Sauvetage - Lifeboats museum, near Gravelines
Nausicaa, Boulogne - all about sea-life, fishing & the environment
Port Museum - Dunkerque

Related background information
Fish and seafood - traditional specialities from the region's cooks




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