Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
|Risking All to Scrape a Living From the Sea
|Otto Pohl Special to the International
Wednesday, August 15, 2001
AGUINO, Spain The rest of the world might consider them a pest,
but in Spain, gourmands are paying top dollar for barnacles.
They are an unlikely looking delicacy, with an inch-long rubbery stalk
the texture of a pencil eraser and a tip with unmistakably alien-head
features. But this relative of the scourge that encrusts oceangoing vessels
worldwide is one of the most expensive seafoods in the world and can command,
during the big Christmas barnacle-eating season here, up to $135 a kilogram
This is due not only to their popularity and limited availability - one
of their few habitats is here in Galicia, on the rocky coast of northwest
Spain - but also because harvesting them is a dangerous business. They
grow all along the coastal cliffs, but flourish most where the waves are
the highest and the wind is at its most fierce.
The same could be said of the people who harvest them. But where the lives
of humans and barnacles overlap, the ocean favors the barnacles: The brutal
waves that the barnacles filter for their food wash barnacle fishermen
to their deaths so regularly that the local marine rescue service cringes
every time they get a call.
"Calls about barnacle fishermen are the worst," says Jose Pose, director
of the Marine Rescue Coordinating Center for the region. "We work as hard
as we can to save their lives, but usually the best we can do is retrieve
By the time the barnacles have made it to a restaurant, however, those
difficulties are forgotten. "They are the king of seafood," said Miguel
Angel Nuevo Garcia, the maitre d' at the El Pescador restaurant in Madrid.
"You can get barnacles from other countries but the ones from Galicia
are the best. They're the only ones we sell." Although an appetizer-sized
serving costs about $26, on an average day he will sell eight to 10 kilos
of barnacles, and more at Christmastime.
That kind of demand drives supply, and a few disturbing mortality statistics
are not enough to turn a Galician away from the sea. For them, the ocean
is such an integral part of life and work that locals have named every
rock along the coast, for reasons of both deference and reference. Stretches
of the coast carry such names as Earth's End and Coast of Death.
In the port of the small fishing town of Aguino, one fisherman, Jose Caneda,
33, has spent little time pondering the risks. "You end up with broken
bones, sprained ankles and maybe chop off a few fingers with your barnacle
scraper," he says, scratching his head.
"But dying?" He exhales and squints into the sun, shrugs. "Never really
thought about it."
This from a man whose colleague and distant relative was washed to his
death just last November off a nearby rock.
In many ways, harvesting barnacles is a good career, and Caneda offers
a typical example. He was introduced to the business by his father. Caneda
and his wife, with three more family members, head out in a small motorboat
to the barnacled cliffs about 20 times a month.
Harvesting is only possible during the three hours around low tide - which
comes once a day and not always during daylight hours. When low tide is
at night, or when the price of barnacles is too low at market to merit
harvesting more of them, the local fishermen's union cancels the day's
But the five of them head out to the rocks whenever possible. Two of them
stay on the boat while three jump ashore, each armed with a long wooden
stick with a metal scraper on one end. The barnacles cement themselves
to the rock with one end, and only vigorous scraping gets them loose.
The best ones are the strongest, and are scraped off with bits of rock
The boulders are alive with crabs at the waterline and guarded by defensive
seagulls above. The best barnacles are tucked into crevices and underneath
boulders, so the fishermen will often disappear almost completely under
rocks and water. When a big wave comes in, there's little they can do
but try to hold on.
"When the weather is bad, you're careful," Caneda says. "When the weather
is good, the work is easy. The dangerous time is when it's in between.
You become careless and suddenly a huge wave crashes into you."
The rocks are so rough and sharp that a pair of sneakers lasts only three
or four days. The wet suit lasts four months at best.
It's hard work. But in one shift, the Caneda family can harvest up to
$380 worth of barnacles, and up to $3,200 worth in a really good week.
For Caneda, with a son and another child on the way, the life is good.
As the popularity of barnacles has grown, the 186 permits granted to harvest
them in the Aguino region have become desirable property. Luis Monteagudo,
the accountant for the fishermen's union, says one of the permits recently
changed hands for about $16,000 - a lot of money in a town like Aguino,
and about six times what they were worth five years ago.
Once the barnacles, known as percebes in Spanish, are sold to a
restaurant, they are usually simply boiled and served. At the table, one
peels off the leathery black skin of the stalk to reveal a multi-hued
plug of flesh, which is considered the best part. The inside of the tip,
the one that resembles an alien head but actually houses the barnacle's
feet, is sometimes eaten as well. A quarter kilo of unpeeled barnacles
yields a typical portion.
Barnacles are harvested, outside of Galicia, in Canada, Peru and Morocco,
but most of them are exported to Spain. The Galician barnacle is considered
the best by connoisseurs, and sells at prices far higher than those from
other countries. The total Galician harvest came to about 334 metric tons
That harvest comes at a price, however. The Marine Rescue center receives
10 to 15 calls a year about barnacle fishing accidents, Pose says, and
most of the accidents are fatal. That's a small part of the total call
volume, but barnacle fishing is a very small profession, with only about
2,000 people practicing it in all of Galicia.
None of that concerns Caneda. He has no plans to stop harvesting barnacles.
"Not unless I win the lottery," he says. "Then, I'll spend my time eating
the barnacles instead of harvesting them."
Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune