Seafront is a theme park devoted to the sea, navigation, fish and fishing. It’s located in Zeebrugge, not far from the gigantic port, but closer to the marina in a building that once housed the local fish auction. Seafront’s Sofie Pieters explains.
“Zeebrugge is a real mix. It’s a beach resort. Thanks to the dredging work that was needed to create the harbour channel Zeebrugge has the broadest beach of any resort on the coast. The sand dredged to create the harbour channel was used to expand the beach. Zeebrugge is, of course, a big industrial port, but it’s also a destination for cruise ships and we have a cruise terminal close by. There’s the navy base, the biggest in Belgium, and trawlers are tied up at the quay. There are fishermen’s pubs as well as the marina. The marina and Seafront are surrounded by fish restaurants. In recent years it’s become quite a foodie destination.”
Seafront is located in the old fish auction building. Zeebrugge forms part of Bruges, a city with a long history as a port, but when the Zwin estuary silted up, commerce and trade moved to Antwerp that was still accessible by sea via the River Scheldt or Schelde.
“By the turn of the 20th century Bruges city fathers were eager to restore the city’s maritime glory and a host of plans were drawn up aimed at creating a new port at Zeebrugge. Several architects were involved and at the outset they didn’t all see eye to eye, but in 1907 the new port of Zeebrugge could be open amid great festivities.”
The port became a hub of trade and commerce, but also a centre for the Flemish fishing fleet.
“Trawlers docked by the quayside where the catch was unloaded, sorted and auctioned. Initially this happened in a wooden auction building. As fishing activity expanded the building that today houses Seafront was built, but by the Eighties it was bursting at its seams and a new purpose-built auction building was constructed.”
This allowed the creation of Seafront, the theme park that reveals the wonders of the North Sea, focuses on the history of Zeebrugge, but also explains how the fish industry has evolved over the past century.
The exhibition opens with a presentation of the animal and plant life of the North Sea staged in co-operation with the WWF, World Wildlife Fund. Here, admire the wealth and great biodiversity of the North Sea, but also discover how we are polluting our maritime ecosystem at sea and on shore. Visitors learn how they too can play a part in reducing pollution.
At Seafront you will see historic photos, documents and posters relating the birth of the port and the seaside resort. British visitors will enjoy the section on the Battle of Saint George’s Day, when in 1918 a massive operation was set in motion to free the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend from domination by the Hun.
Sofie Pieters: “The British navy filled ships with concrete and had them explode in the port channel. In this way the Germans could no longer use this vital port. The British view this operation as one of the big navy successes of the Great War. It required a lot of preparation."
"The Royal Navy had to wait for the right weather and created a smoke screen to prevent the Germans from seeing what they were getting up to. After the war the fame of the Saint George’s Day Battle played a major role in the development of tourism in these parts. Many Brits wanted to see the site of this battle with their own eyes boosting local tourism. Wealthy visitors could stay at the Palace Hotel that was built to welcome the first transatlantic passengers.”
At present Seafront is hosting a special exhibition devoted to Operation North Sea, the Second World War operation that led to the liberation of the approaches to the port of Antwerp. The exhibition that runs until January 2021 explains how Operation North Sea meant that Allied forces could once again use the port of Antwerp to bring in men and equipment, ammunition and supplies, to make the advance on Berlin possible.
At Seafront we also learn about the Horse Market, a sandbank off the resort of Heist where up to 100,000 tons of ammunition were dumped in the First and Second World Wars.
Fish remains one of the core activities in the port of Zeebrugge that together with other industrial activities provides employment for over 10,000 people.
Sofie Pieters: “The port is a major logistic centre. There’s roll on, roll off traffic, container traffic, car imports. You’d be surprised how many goods in our supermarkets all passed through the port of Zeebrugge. But the port is also a major processing hub. Here goods are processed and packaged too.”
The fish industry is a case in point. Seafront reveals how this industry has changed over the years.
Sofie Pieters: “The catch is partly processed at sea. Fishermen get the best price for the freshest fish, so speed and preservation are of the essence. An initial sorting happens at sea. The fish are divided up by size and by variety. Here too they are gutted. Once the fish are landed they can be graded. All these processes used to happen manually, but today an awful lot is automated.”
“At Zeebrugge you will see the auction clocks that used to be used. The auction starts with a high price that is then lowered. You can make your bid and stop the clock from descending any further at any time. Wait too long and somebody else will be off with the lot. In former times buyers could stroll among the baskets. Today everything happens on a computer screen. The fish is graded according to a points system that allows buyers to appraise the catch.”
You can have a go at bidding together with a friend and discover which of you has most feeling for this task. Seafront also includes interactive applications. Definitely use a tablet or a smartphone to learn more about the different professions that play a role in the fish industry.
Seafront is located at Vismijnstraat 7 in Zeebrugge and is open Monday through Sunday.