Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

Risking All to Scrape a Living From the Sea
Otto Pohl Special to the International Herald Tribune
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 (2.2 pounds).

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 the corpse."

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 work.

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 still attached.

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 last year.

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