Scraping by on barnacles in Spain

Tom Burridge joins the barnacle collectors on the rocks

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To the less-adventurous foreign diner visiting Spain, gooseneck barnacles are a slimy, salty, unappealing snack.

But for a Galician, they are an expensive, tasty treat and their high price implies a high risk for the men and women who prise them off the rocks, on this Spanish region's beautiful, but often inhospitable and ragged coastline.

Now, the barnacle-collectors or percebeiros, as they are known in Galician, say stocks of the valuable seafood delicacy are being decimated by a rising number of people who go out gathering without a licence.

It is ten o'clock at night in Bayona, a fishing town near Galicia's border with Portugal.

Xose Lourenzo, a member of the Guarda pesca - the Fishermen's Guard, a security service funded by the fishermen and barnacle-collectors here - stares out through night vision binoculars into the pitch black.

Below us, amid the sound of waves crashing onto the rocks, eminently more visible in the green night-vision of the binoculars, is someone gathering valuable gooseneck barnacles illegally.

"Although they're hard to collect," says Mr Lourenzo, "it pays well. In just an hour, or two, you can collect 50 [£42; $67] or 60 euros' worth."

Family food

Unable to track down the individual they spotted in amongst myriad rock formations, they later show us a net-load of illegal catch, abandoned at the sea's edge by another individual, who ran off in a hurry to avoid being caught and the possibility of a fine.

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Mr Lourenzo says the number of people heading out to collect the barnacles without a licence has risen during the economic crisis.

And he says the perpetrators generally fit into two camps.

Firstly, there are those who collect several kilos' worth and then sell them to restaurants or in other regions of Spain for a profit.

And then there are those like Heladio Davila, who has been unemployed for two years and gathers the barnacles for food, to eat with his daughter at home.

Mr Davila says "lots" of people now collect the barnacles illegally.

"There's no other way for us to earn, so we can eat," he says. "There are no factories here, just two months' work in tourism during the summer."

Barnacle collectors on Bayona coast There is much economic hardship in Galicia - so barnacles are eagerly collected despite the risk
Barnacle collectors on Bayona coast This female team of pickers is continuing a long family tradition
Barnacles close-up, collected on Bayona coast Traditional collectors are worried about competition from illegal poachers
Barnacles on plate A plate of barnacles can cost more than 50 euros in a restaurant
Cutting back

At ten o'clock in the morning, near Bayona, we witness a fiery exchange.

Fifty or so barnacle collectors, some in their wetsuits, shout face to face.

In a scene reminiscent of the build-up to a bar brawl, two men square up, as if they are about to fight.

But these are not licence-holders taking on poachers - they are all on the same side, and legal.

They decide to hold a vote, and a slim majority of the percebeiros decide they will head out to collect barnacles today.

The rest of the group wanted to postpone the collection until later in the week because on the day we are there, the sea is particularly rough.

Tension and the number of arguments have risen here.

That is because only days before we arrived the percebeiros in this part of Galicia agreed to reduce the number of days they can head out to collect barnacles, from 15 days a month to just eight.

Barnacle collectors on Bayona coast The crashing surf makes it dangerous work
Dangerous work

"We live off the barnacles," says Susana Gonzalez Alvarez.

The number of collecting days has been reduced because the stocks of barnacles have fallen, and she blames over-fishing, caused by people collecting the barnacles without a licence.

"The fewer days we go out, the fewer barnacles we collect, and the less money we earn."

Ms Gonzalez is continuing a female family tradition. Her mother and grandmother were barnacle-collectors before her.

And she works on the rocks in a team, with her three sisters, Eladia, Isabel and Belen.

As each wave goes out, they follow quickly after, moving stealthily to the rocks' edge, where they chip away at barnacles with a pole.

Often they have to then run, as a wave crashes in, and the powerful currents of the Atlantic swirl around the rocks.

"It's a job in which accidents are common, people often fracture arms and legs, and you can easily fall into the sea," says Isabel.

But inexperienced, illegal collectors are undeterred, and often do not respect the rules over the size of the barnacles you are supposed to pick and the parts of the coastline where you are not allowed to gather.

The high price of these slimy snacks is something more and more people cannot resist, and the four sisters are among those who lose out.

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