Dangerous, tasty fishery resumes off B.C. coast

One of British Columbia's most unusual and dangerous fisheries is poised for a comeback. Gooseneck barnacles, which grow on the rocks off the west coast of Vancouver Island, are prized by high-end restaurants all over the world.

Gooseneck barnacles haven't been harvested on West Coast since the 1990s

Chris Brown is seaside as the risky, lucrative microfishery harvest begins 1:27

One of British Columbia's most unusual and dangerous fisheries is poised for a comeback.

Gooseneck barnacles, which grow on the rocks below the high tide line off the west coast of Vancouver Island, are prized in Spain and served as appetizers by high-end restaurants across North America.

With a shell-like top and stubby stalks of rich meat beneath, goosenecks resemble clumps of asparagus. However, the best ones are hard to reach and risky to harvest.

"It could be a really big industry, we just got to get the word out," harvester Marcel Martin told CBCNews as he worked on a rocky outcropping near the entrance to Clayoquot Sound, about a 15-minute boat trip from Tofino.

Gooseneck barnacle harvesters hop on to slippery rocks that are only accessible a few hours a day at low tide. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Leap of faith for harvesters

With heaving swells and surf pounding the barnacle-encrusted rocks beneath him, Martin's father Carl kept careful watch from an aluminum boat just a few metres away. It's easy for a sudden change in sea conditions to swamp the rocks and sweep the harvesters into the ocean.

"Getting out here is probably the hardest part," Marcel Martin said

Hopping from the boat to the slippery rocks requires good timing and a leap of faith as well.
Like lobsters or shrimp, goosenecks are crustaceans. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Anything can happen," Martin said. "You can easily step off the rocks."

While goosenecks grow all over the B.C. coast, its takes a trip to far flung spots like this to find the best ones.

"The barnacles like the surf," Martin said as he drove a spade into a cluster anchored to the rock.  "They like the pounding. The bigger barnacles are lower down [closer to the water]."

This place is only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide in good weather, so harvesters have to work quickly.

Over-harvesting concern

It's been a generation since too many people picking too few goosenecks caused the stock to collapse and end commercial harvesting.

"Over-harvesting is a big concern," Tla'o'quiaht fisheries manager Andrew Jackson told CBC News. "We have learned from past mistakes where they were over-harvesting. The next thing you know, no one knew the harvest rate — what can it sustain."
Gooseneck barnacles are starting to appear on menus of high-end restaurants across North America. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The expectation is roughly 30,000 pounds of goosenecks will be gathered up before punishing winter weather shuts operations down. A harvester working for a few hours a day during the fall and winter might be able to bring in as much as $1,000 a week.

Only a dozen or so families from the area are participating, but Jackson says its important to be able to tap into a local resource.

"I like to think it will mean a better living for our people."

Ocean Wise approval

The new fishery has the backing of some significant players, including the Vancouver Aquarium. It's assessed the harvest through its Ocean Wise program, which offers a stamp of approval for sustainable local seafood.

Its staff, including fisheries scientist Laurenne Schiller, have checked each rock to determine how many barnacles the new fishery can sustain.

"This is one of 52 rocks in Clayoquot Sound the barnacles harvesters come to," she told CBC News. "Each one has a specific quota."

The aquarium is also part of the promotion efforts to find new markets for the delicacy.

"It's important to encourage people to tap into their local waters and eat species that aren't too far from their home," Schiller said.

With the new fishery only just beginning, Marcel Martin says there's a learning curve for everyone involved: It's easy to crush and kill the barnacles while trying to pull them from the rocks.

"It takes a long time to the hang of it," he said, adding he enjoys eating them, too.

"It's got its own flavour," Martin said. "Like crab."

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