On the craggy west coast of Vancouver Island, our sturdy steel touring boat departs from Tofino, gliding through the calm waters of Maurus Channel before spitting out into the open ocean. We are headed for the small rocky outcrops that disappear under high tide, where gooseneck barnacles grow sweet and plump in the pounding surf.
Gooseneck barnacles – also known as percebes in Spain and Portugal, where the briny delicacies fetch exorbitant prices (up to $500 a pound) – are edible crustaceans that look like wrinkled dinosaur toes. Here, in the T’aaq-wiihak fishing area, Ca?inwa (the aboriginal name for these barnacles) have been a food source for the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations for millennia. The commercial fishery is more recent, but has a volatile history. Many local fishermen have died for this devilishly ugly seafood.
Two years ago, in the wake of a landmark, yet still unresolved, court decision that recognized First Nations’ indigenous right to make a living from fishing (as they’ve traded fish in those territories for centuries), a new – much safer – gooseneck-barnacle fishery was created. Now available in fine-dining restaurants across Canada and the United States (including Maison Boulud in Montreal and Alinea in Chicago), the peculiar little shellfish recently landed another first – the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise new domestic seal of scientifically assessed sustainability.
Back on the boat, the driver idles in the swell, waiting for a series of waves to pass, then jams the pointy bow into a jagged crevice caked in mussels. Jumping through foamy white spray and creamy orange squirts of mussel meat, we land on the rock and scramble up the short summit.
Marcel Martin, a sinewy fisherman dressed in rubber waders and a life preserver, leans over a long-handled spade and surveys the dark landscape. The rock isn’t even visible underneath its gnarled carpeting of hard shells.
Gooseneck barnacles grow in rosette-shaped clusters, with the oldest at the centre. Only the beaks, the calcified shells that contain the organs and feathery feeding legs, are exposed. The peduncle, a thick orange-and-brown sheath covering the edible stalk, attaches to hard surfaces, either the rock itself or clumps of California mussels and acorn barnacles.
Martin, who pries the barnacles loose with a modified leaf-spring tool called a goose gun, isn’t interested in the goosenecks clinging to rocks. He digs the gun’s sharp edge into a bed of mussels and acorns underneath the barnacles, shovelling it all up in a turf-like divot.
If scraped directly from the rocks, the peduncle rips open, excreting a thin, pale-peach liquid, and the creature dies. Soon after it perishes, the stalks turn black, seize up into tough rubber and are no longer edible. As a result, gooseneck barnacles are always sold fresh, never frozen.
Much like oysters and clams, goosenecks absorb the flavours of the water in which they live and breed. There may be subtle, sweet-vegetal nuances from rock to rock, depending on the type of phytoplankton and larvae eaten. But the allure, aside from novelty, is that barnacles are a pure, chewy expression of salty ocean, an essence that cannot normally be chewed.
Bigger isn’t always better. If exposed to air for too long or if the water is too calm, the stalk grows long and thin. The fishermen are looking for short, squat peduncles, the size of a large man’s thumb. The most prized (and dangerous to gather) specimens are found on the edge of the rocks, where they are continuously battered and flushed by rough wave action.
Later, on the dock, Martin and his father, Carl, separate the clumps by hand, discarding any barnacles that are damaged or dead. The final bundle delivered to distributors will contain different sizes from all parts of the rock. This may have to change if the fishery is to become more marketable. In Spain and Portugual, percebes are graded and sold according to quality. That doesn’t happen here – yet. As the fishery matures, local knowledge could impart that level of distinction.
“The other day, my wife was reading me a book written by Luke Swan, an elder from around here,” Martin explains. “He said there were places they harvested only at certain times a year, and they always went back to the same spots because they’d grow better the next time.”
Chefs, in particular, would appreciate more attention to quality. At Wolf in the Fog, an acclaimed Tofino restaurant, chef Nick Nutting blanches the gooseneck barnacles for a few minutes and removes the sheath from the stalk, before folding them into a Spanish tomato-based stew. One night, the goosenecks are as tender as lobster. Two days later, the goosenecks from a different catch, prepared exactly the same way, are as chewy as octopus.
“They’re inconsistent,” the chef says. “When you clean them after blanching, you want the meat to flop. Some are stiff.”
Gooseneck barnacles taste like clams or a gulp of fresh ocean water – intensely briny, but not fishy, with a slightly sweet finish. Similar to lobster, the best have a plush, meaty tooth pull, but can sometimes become chewy like calamari, depending on the grade and cooking technique.
To eat the barnacle, hold the shell with two fingers, pinch the neck and pull away the skin. Watch out, they squirt. (Many restaurants will actually do this step for you.) Bite off the stalk, but do not suck the feathery feeding legs in the shell – they’re as tough and stringy as dental floss.
Traditionally, among First Nations and in Europe, they are simply boiled in salt water, served without sauces or seasoning, and eaten as a finger food. Canadian chefs often fold them into heavy stews or infuse them with smoke – a complete waste, in my mind, since it masks the fresh flavour. The most delicious preparation I’ve ever tasted was at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café: Chef Frank Pabst lightly sautéed the stalks Provençal-style in olive oil, garlic, shallots, parsley and lemon.
Barnacles are available in fine-dining restaurants year-round (including at Canoe and Bar Isabel in Toronto; Maison Boulud and Toqué in Montreal; Blue Water Café, Cioppino’s and the Vancouver Club in Vancouver; the RimRock Resort Hotel, Canadian Mountain Holidays resorts in Banff, Alta.; Alinea and Moto in Chicago; and Toro in New York). Various fish stores will stock gooseneck barnacles, and consumers can also buy direct from Mikuni Wild Harvest.
A most dangerous fishery
Back in the mid-eighties, Joe David, a commercial fisherman from the Clayoquot Nation, had fallen on hard times. The gooseneck-barnacle fishery beckoned like a gold rush.
It was a growing industry: The original nine licences issued by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 1985 ballooned to 467 by 1988. The barnacles were all being exported to Europe: buyers’ representatives were coming straight to Tofino every Friday to take as much as they could get.
Prices were high, from $12 to $15 a pound (they now sell for $10), and highest in winter, when the Peruvian barnacle fishery was closed. The fishermen could catch 60 to 80 pounds per tide, about four hours’ work. They would try to go out two or three times a week, no matter the weather or water conditions. “Everybody was unemployed,” David recalls. “Everybody made a mad dash. Risks were taken.”
As the barnacle fishery grew, so did the number of inexperienced harvesters. During lucrative winter months, they could only harvest in the dark of night to catch low tide. There were no safety protocols. Many people used small boats with beach lines that would flip over or get stuck. Some, David says, went out drunk or stoned to beef up their courage.
“Out at night amongst the reefs, you had to know where you were running,” David says. “If you picked the wrong rock or you were too low in the water, the odd wave would come along and you’d get washed.
“There was one freak wave that threw me in the water. And once you’re in white water, you can’t swim, you just sink right to the bottom. I held on for dear life. It was only 30 seconds, but when I stood up, every inch of my body ached. Must have been the adrenaline. I knew it was a long fall down and I would have been smashed by the waves.” Others weren’t so lucky. Four of David’s friends died in that first fishery, which lasted from 1985 to 1999.
The fishery wasn’t closed because of the deaths, but because of concern about overharvesting. “The sales slips weren’t lining up with how many barnacles were being landed,” says Alex Gagne, the current T’aaq-wiihak fisheries implementation co-ordinator. “The DFO wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, my god. This is dangerous.’ It was more like, ‘Hey, we don’t know where these are coming from. Let’s nip it in the bud.’”
This latest fishery is being co-managed by the First Nations with the DFO.
It’s a celebration dinner at the five-star Wickaninnish Inn’s Pointe Restaurant. The Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, which recommends sustainable seafood choices, has just announced that the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations gooseneck-barnacle fishery has passed a science-based assessment with a sterling Best Choice/Green grade.
This was the first assessment in a new Ocean Wise initiative that will focus on Canadian fisheries. Up until now, the program has had to rely on assessments conducted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which precludes many small-scale, local seafood operations lower on the food chain.
For consumers, this means eating gooseneck barnacles with a clear conscience. The Ocean Wise report uses peer reviews, external input and a doctoral thesis-type presentation. The fishery was assessed on four levels: the impacts of the fishery on the stock in question; impacts on other species; effectiveness of management; and impacts on habitat and ecosystem. It earned a nearly perfect score, 4.5 out of 5, losing only to the fact that the fishery is still too new to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of its management strategies.
Research analyst Laurenne Schiller conducted the assessment. Her 39-page report notes the many precautionary strategies that the locally managed fishery has devised to ensure the proper monitoring of the stock – and, indirectly, the fishermen who harvest them. “It’s just not worth it,” Marcel Martin says. “If the swell is bigger than seven feet, we don’t bother going out.”
Andrew Jackson, the Tla-o-qui-aht fisheries manager who enforces the rules and mediates fishing disputes among Nations, contemplates the single gooseneck barnacle – pickled in mushroom vinegar – on the stone plate in front of him.
The precious presentation doesn’t bear much resemblance to the experiences of his youth, when he and the guys would go down to the beach with a bunch of beers and boil a pot of goosenecks over the campfire.
But the success of the commercial fishery and the glowing Ocean Wise report shore up his belief that a locally managed fishery is more sustainable in the long run.
“It’s not all about money,” he says. “It’s about pride, too. We’re people of the ocean. Almost everything we needed we caught from the ocean. And now we’re getting back there.”
The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations gooseneck-barnacle fishery came into existence as a result of Ahousaht Nation et al. v. Canada, a case upheld by the Supreme Court of British Columbia that protects the constitutional right of the five defendant Nations – Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Ehattesaht – to commercially harvest and sell fish from their traditional territories.
The five nations have developed detailed management plans for all species – salmon, groundfish and shellfish, including crab, prawns and gooseneck barnacles – that give them more flexibility to create systems that reflect their views and ideals.
But so far, the DFO has only granted one licence, for the barnacles. (That licence, which lasts just six months, stipulates the total weight that can be caught; the fishery divides the quota among the First Nations.)
“This was unique,” Gagne explains. “There is no other commercial fishery. It’s not like other fisheries, where the DFO would have to take the resources away from someone else,” noting that the fishery has “very positive relations” with the local DFO staff members.
But will it last? The Ahousaht case, although final and constitutionally protected, is now back in court for what is called a justification trial. After 3 1/2 years of failed negotiations, the federal government (which already lost an appeal) must now prove why the “continued infringements” of the Nuu-chah-nulth aboriginal rights can be justified by Canada’s responsibility to “balance societal interests.” It was relatively simple to act on gooseneck barnacles, as no one else was fishing them. But to move forward on other fisheries, such as chinook, halibut and so on, the government would have to buy back licences from other non-First Nations fishermen and reallocate them to the First Nations. Because the case is before the B.C. Supreme Court, the DFO declined to comment.
The trial started on March 9. The federal government is expected to wrap up its case some time in November and then the First Nations will present theirs. The success of the gooseneck-barnacle fishery could help their case. But it could all be washed back out to sea in the wake of a negative ruling.
“The people on the ground are doing everything they can to make it work,” Gagne says.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Tofino and the Vancouver Aquarium. Neither reviewed or approved this story.
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