Spain -- HERE on the rocky coast of northwest Spain, where the lives
of humans and barnacles overlap, the ocean favors the barnacles.
These unlikely looking delicacies grow all along the cliffs, but
flourish best where the waves are highest and the wind is at its
most fierce. The brutal waves wash barnacle fishermen to their
deaths so regularly that the local marine rescue service cringes
every time the phone rings.
"Calls about barnacle fishermen are the worst," said Jose Pose,
the 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."
A few disturbing mortality statistics are not enough to turn a
Galician away from the sea. The ocean is such an integral part of
life and work here that locals have named every rock of any size for
reasons of both deference and reference. Fishermen who fare badly
leave as their legacy bitter names for stretches of the coast, like
Earth's End and Coast of Death.
In this fishing town, Jose Caneda, a 33-year-old barnacle
fisherman, has spent little time pondering how the ocean giveth and
taketh away. "You end up with broken bones, sprained ankles, and
maybe chop off a few fingers with your barnacle scraper," he said.
"But dying? I have never really thought about it."
Mr. Caneda heads out to the cliffs in a little motorboat about 20
times a month with his wife, his father, his sister and a
brother-in-law. Harvesting is possible only during the three hours
around low tide. When the price of barnacles is too low to merit
harvesting them, the local fishermen's union cancels the day's work.
There are also times when the seas are too rough, and seasons when
the barnacles are declared off-limits and allowed to regenerate.
But whenever possible, the Caneda family hunts barnacles. The
women stay on the boat, ready to collect full bags. The others jump
ashore, each armed with a long wooden stick with a metal scraper on
one end. The barnacles cement themselves to the rocks and come loose
only after vigorous scraping. The best barnacles are the strongest,
and are harvested still clinging to bits of rock.
The boulders are alive with crabs at the waterline, and guarded
by defensive gulls above. Dressed in wet suits, Mr. Caneda and his
party look a little like frogmen cleaning the dentures of some
submerged oceanic giant. The best barnacles have a tendency to tuck
themselves deep into crevices and underneath boulders, so the
fishermen often disappear almost completely under rocks and water.
When a big wave comes in, all they can do is try to hold on.
"When the weather is bad, you're careful," Mr. Caneda said. "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."
To increase traction, the fishermen wear high-top sneakers. The
rocks are so rough and sharp that a pair lasts only days.
In one trip, the Caneda family can harvest $325 to $375 worth of
barnacles, more than $3,000 worth in a really good week.
As the popularity of barnacles from Spain has grown — long a
local favorite, especially at Christmas, they are coveted by top
chefs around the world — the 186 permits granted to harvest them in
the Aguiño region have become desirable property. Originally free,
they are now a bit like New York City taxi medallions, significant
investments. One permit recently changed hands for about $16,000 —
about six times what one was worth five years ago.
By the time the barnacles, known as goosenecks in English,
Pollicipes cornucopia in Latin and percebes in Spanish, show up on a
restaurant table, they have often been shelled. The diner peels off
the leathery black skin of the stalk to reveal a multihued plug of
flesh. The inside of the scaly tip is sometimes eaten as well.
Barnacles are harvested in many places, including Canada, Peru
and Morocco, but those from Galicia are considered the finest by
connoisseurs, and sell at prices far higher than those from other
countries. The total Galician harvest was 334 metric tons last
That harvest comes at a human price, however. The rescue center
receives 10 to 15 calls a year about accidents, Mr. Pose said, and
most 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 practicing it in all of Galicia.
When a call comes in, it triggers a series of events that have
become sadly routine. "We send out our rescue teams in helicopters
and boats, and we will look for three days for a survivor," Mr. Pose
said. "After that, there is virtually no hope of finding the
fisherman alive, but we continue a reduced search for the next five
None of that concerns Mr. Caneda. He has no plans to stop
harvesting barnacles. "Not unless I win the lottery," he said.
"Then, I'll spend my time eating the barnacles, instead of