Risking Death for One of the Sea's Ugliest, Tastiest Creatures

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Risking Death for One of the Sea's Ugliest, Tastiest Creatures

Fishermen in Galicia face death every time the go hunting for percebes, a hideous but highly sought-after barnacle found in the waters here. I followed one man on his harvest to find out why they do it.

In the coastal region of Galicia at the very edge of northeast Spain, there's a crew of fishermen who risk their lives every day. They face death in an effort to harvest the most ugly, prehistoric, and delicious of crustaceans: the percebes, a.k.a. barnacle.

It's 4 PM on a sunny, windy summertime day. The temperature is pleasant at just 74 degrees Fahrenheit in La Coruña. I have a meeting downtown with Amable Pérez, one of the most well-known percebeiros (barnacle hunters) in the region. He's been a percebeiro since he was 13, but at age 41, the current economic crisis is making everything much more difficult for him and other barnacle hunters. It is no longer like the 80s, when percebes prices reached a height that has never been the same since.

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"Every year someone dies because there is a very high risk in [harvesting percebes], and some people just push it too hard and fall into disgrace. And some barnacle hunters that do this don't even know how to swim," Pérez tells me. But these risks don't affect the price of the product; it is the seasons that determine how much percebeiros will profit. If the harvest is poor, then the market prices skyrocket. The people that make the most money are those who sell the product to the consumer for at least double the starting price. During certain times of the year, like Christmas, a kilo of the barnacles can cost up to 350 euros.

Appearance is an important quality when attempting to make a dish appetizing, but the percebes is hideous, as if an alien was implanted onto a bed of sea rock. Its magic lies in its flavor, the closest thing to eating the sea. And as if it wasn't unusual enough, the creature is a hermaphrodite with two different reproductive systems: one male and one female. We eat its sex.

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There's several ways to hunt for barnacles, but Pérez tells me that the best way is searching the lower part of the rocks. But then there is the classic style–which Pérez is doing today—called a pelo, with which he uses nothing but his tools and his strength.

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As we drive to the area where he plans to hunt for the barnacles, he tells me about the illegal harvesting problem. "There are organized and violent groups that are not legally registered as seafood pickers. They're troubling groups because they don't respect the recuperation time of the percebes. We pay taxes, and to do this kind of quick picking to make fast money is breaking the law," Pérez tells me. "However, the legal way also has its complications, because we only have a month to do this. And some of those days, the sea might be dangerous or the area that you got your permit for has nothing left to pick. It's complicated, and sometimes it seems as if the law pushes you to do it illegally."

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He keeps reflecting as we drive: "To be a percebeiro is not a simple thing. Less than a month ago, one of my colleagues died by drowning right in front of other people that weren't able to help him. He got nervous, and that is the main danger: fear." It's normal to see white crosses in areas where percebes are collected across the Galician coast, visual symbols that indicate where someone died while practicing this ancestral job. This is also why this place is known as "the death coast."

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One year ago, Pérez was hailed as a hero by the local news, when he rescued a picker who got swallowed by the sea. "I didn't know if he was illegal or not, but what I do know is that I had no doubt in my mind that I needed to save him, because human beings are always first," he says proudly.

When we reach La Coruña, where there are hundreds of lighthouses bordering the coast, I spot other percebeiros waiting for the sea to calm down. "The sea is not great today. The currents are too high but we can still go down and see what we get," Pérez tells me.

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From the lighthouse, the view is majestic: La Coruña city is on one side with its Hercules Tower, and the sea's horizon takes you to the Americas on the other side. The rest of the hunters have left because there is nothing here for them today. But Pérez doesn't back down and asks me to continue to walk down a precipitous cliff. "Be careful, don't kill yourself before we even get there!" he tells me half-jokingly. The road is dangerous, and any careless step could probably kill me.

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Pérez picks up his pace as he walks down these steep cliffs. He is wearing a neoprene suit for the freezing waters of the Atlantic and carries a net bag attached to his clothes, in which he gathers all the percebes that he can harvest. He's also carrying a rapa, a spear with a flat point that he uses to scrape the percebes out of the rocks.

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As strange as it sounds, many barnacle pickers don't know how to swim. The trick, according to Pérez, is to "never stop looking at the sea behind you. If you don't do that for a second, a wave could pull you and take you to wherever it wants to."

We continue to descend as he points out a rock where a wave just violently hit. The sound of the sea is deafening. I think that you have to be quite crazy to do what he does. But nothing about him reveals an insane person—quite the opposite, in fact.

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The sea is quite rough and choppy. "I'm going to that side," he tells me. He then quickly jumps and swims toward a huge rock being pummeled by the sea. I watch him tie a rope to the rock while he starts scraping another jagged rock with the rapa. When the waves pull back, he takes a look at it—but then another wave comes and hits him again. He takes the hits, giving into them. This goes on for a while.

At one point, I lose track of him for close to five minutes. I don't panic, but I get close to it; it's just the two of us out here, and we're far away from any hospital. He finally surfaces among the rocks and I spot him securing his rope. He fights against the tides while he continues to put percebes into his bag, looking back at the sea. It looks as if the sea doesn't want him to steal any of its bounty.

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After an hour and a half, Pérez decides to return to shore. As he climbs up the rocks, I see him looking sad and tired. He tells me, "Today was a lost day for me, economically. I didn't get enough percebes to take to La Coruña's lonja [the local wholesale market] to sell them." He shows me a net that's tied to his waist and what looks like a decent quantity, but to him, it's too little. I taste one and a strong, briny flavor washes over my palate. "Here, take this and prepare a good dinner for your family," he says.

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We go back the same way we came. I thank him and we say our goodbyes.

To go out in the sea is the best thing that could happen, he tells me. "But you are always risking your life when you do so," I respond. "Yes, I know," he adds, "but it's a passion and I'm never afraid of what gives me pleasure. It's the kind of happiness that you only get a little bit of every day, and sometimes you need to fight for it."

This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in September 2015.