Barnacle Harvest at the Edge of the World

Jonathan Harris | October 2016

They weren’t kidding about the waves. As we clambered up the sharp, slippery rocks covered in mussels and barnacles, I looked down and a large wave broke across the tiny island, swirling at the feet of the harvester and his father. It is not hard to imagine an unexpected breaker sweeping a person off of this small rocky island and into the Pacific Ocean.

Our host on that special day in September was Billy George of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe in Vancouver, Canada. A soft-spoken man who makes his living from the sea, I was immediately taken with his warm smile and willingness to share stories about his life and connection to this special part of the world. 

The reason for our visit literally covered the small wave-battered island – plump gooseneck barnacles. Called Percebes in Spain, this type of barnacle is a treasured seafood that is harvested in Galicia, in far northwestern Spain. There, brave Galicians risk their lives dashing between waves to chisel this unique seafood from the treacherous granite rocks. Soon afterward, their harvest graces the tables of fine restaurants across Spain, fetching up to $100 per pound.

But how could we offer this amazing seafood to our customers? The answer came last year when I heard about the goose barnacles of Vancouver. Nearly identical to Galician percebes, these barnacles can be delivered to their final destination within a few days of harvest, a feat we could not accomplish from Galician sources. And once they are received, they are so simple to prepare – simply boil them for a few minutes and they are ready to serve. They have a sweet, rich flavor, evoking clams or lobster. I had to learn more about this new source!

The story behind these percebes is almost more impressive that the seafood itself. Unlike so many over-harvested fisheries, the barnacles are a truly sustainable seafood, certified by the Vancouver Aquarium. Each island in the bay is carefully monitored and only a small portion of the rock is cleared. And the fishermen of the area are uniquely positioned to steward this harvest. The Nuu-chah-nulth tribe is native to the island, and are the only people licensed to collect the barnacles.

Billy and his father told me how their people prepare the percebes. They use a special box filled with seawater. Stones are heated over a fire, then dropped in the water until it boils. The goose barnacles are then cooked in the boiling water, then served and eaten by hand.

I was stunned – this is almost the exact same way that percebes are prepared in Spain! I remember sitting down in A Coruña a few years ago for a seafood feast. We nibbled on tasty little berberechos (cockles) and plump mejillones (mussels). Then came the main attraction – a plate of percebes freshly harvested and flash boiled in salted water. We peeled away the outer skin to reveal the coral colored meat, briny and full of flavor. It is amazing to think that for centuries the people of Spain and the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe have enjoyed this special seafood in the exact same way, but on opposite sides of the world!

But maybe it is not so surprising. The rugged coasts of Galicia and Vancouver have much in common. The climate is cool and wet, supporting lush vegetation. And most importantly, both coasts are battered by the nutrient rich northern oceans. This provides the ideal habitat for goose barnacles that filter plankton and nutrients using their fan-like appendages. In this ideal habitat, the percebes grow quickly, recolonizing harvested areas within a year.

Billy told me another connection between Spain and the Vancouver fishery. Some years ago, before the recession, Spain could not supply all of the demand for percebes. Billy and many of his fellow tribe members harvested thousands of pounds of goose barnacles from the Clayoquot sound, and most of them were shipped to the seafood markets of Galicia and Madrid. 

This booming trade was not without its victims – several men lost their lives to the pounding surf. Billy told me a harrowing tale of how he was washed across the jagged rocks one day by a rogue wave, tumbling across beds of sharp mussels and barnacles. He swam to his boat that was moored nearby, but he was lucky to survive. Another time a wave crashed into him unexpectedly. He jammed his heavy metal harvesting staff into a crevice and held on tight while the water rushed over him.

The market for percebes is much diminished now. There is no longer demand from Spain, and the harvest is carefully monitored after the excesses of the boom times. Most days Billy is the only fisherman on the rocks, carrying on the tradition of his tribe. He says he often will remain on the little islands in the sound for hours after he harvests, taking in the beauty of this pristine part of the world. 

I was struck by the knowledge that the orders from La Tienda are directly supporting this special fishery. The market is so small that every time we buy a pound of percebes we are providing meaningful support to this man and his tribe, and sustaining a tradition that is in danger of disappearing. This is part of our mission, to help sustainable food traditions survive and prosper, usually in our beloved Spain. I found that my visit to Vancouver was a concrete example of this idea in action.

What a crazy set of circumstances that brought me to this remote coastal fishery! It was a privilege to spend time with Billy and his father, and to connect with a food tradition shared by Gallegos in Spain and the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe a world away. This struggle to preserve and sustain food traditions is shared by people across the world, and I look forward to bringing you more stories about protecting the food heritage of Spain and beyond.

-Jonathan Harris