Percebeiros: The Hunter-Gatherers of Europe’s Rugged Coastlines
Until recently in our evolutionary history as a species, humans couldn’t extract resources faster than those resources were renewed. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t because Nature put a limit on the amount we could physically take.
Then, sometime within the last few thousand years, we crossed a tipping point and now we are quickly and unashamedly depleting our own resource base. Our addiction to technology and unsustainable living has spread to almost every corner of the globe. For example, where I live in northwest Iberia, there are no large cities but there are steelworks, paper mills, aluminium factories and a coal-fired power station right next to the coast. Much of the landscape is scarred by open-cast mines and quarries, and the mountains are planted with eucalyptus—an invasive species that can harm the ecosystem. These industries are a source of employment for a local population who could not imagine an alternative.
However, there are a few groups of people in this area who make a living in a much more sustainable way. One such group are the percebeiros, or collectors of goose barnacles. A surprising number of my surfing friends along this coast are percebeiros, so I thought I would talk to them about their work, and find out how being a surfer and being a percebeiro go hand in hand.
Above: Elias Vazquez uses his biztonta to collect goose barbacles. Photo: Tony Butt
The goose barnacle, pollicipes pollicipes is one of over 1000 species of barnacles—animals that spend most of their lives anchored to the surface of rocks in coastal zones. Goose barnacles favour high-energy areas such as cliffs and rocky coastlines with large breaking waves, where the water movements produce a constant flux of nutrients. They live in the intertidal zone (between high and low tide), so they are exposed or semi-exposed at low tide and submersed at high tide.
The barnacles take about six months to grow to a size where they can be harvested, at which point they are painstakingly picked off the rocks by hand. The tools required are pretty straightforward and vary according to how sophisticated you want to make it. The ubiquitous tool of the percebeiro is the biztonta or cavadoira—the spatula needed for levering the barnacles off the rocks. Roger “El Ruso” Pelaez, a lifelong percebeiro and surfer from Asturias, explains:
“The biztonta is like a normal spatula but really strong, in a T-shape. We buy them for around 20 euros from an old iron smith who makes knives by hand. Normally, I just buy the end piece without the handle then I put it together my own way.”
Percebeiros also need a thick wetsuit, boots and gloves for protection against the cold and the rocks—maybe kneepads, a helmet, a few ropes and a harness. Other essentials are a net bag for carrying the barnacles, and a basic weighing machine to make sure you collect the right amount. With that equipment you are essentially good to go, all for a couple hundred euros.
Now, if you are really serious and want to expand your barnacle-collecting territory to areas inaccessible from the land, you will need a small boat. Elias Vazquez and Alejandro Menendez, who have been working the coast around the Asturias-Galicia border for well over ten years, have a small outboard skiff. Up and running the boat cost around 18,000 euros between them—admittedly a different level of investment than the basic tools mentioned above.
However, even if you include the boat, the tools required to be a percebeiro are probably worth less than those of a serious modern big-wave surfer, with a quiver of guns, four or five suits and a PWC for rescues.
Elias Vazquez (left) and Alejandro Menendez (right) check the conditions before going out. Photo: Tony Butt
Basically all the equipment you need. Not shown are the years of experience and a healthy respect for the ocean. Photo: Tony Butt
Elias and Alejandro in action. Video: percebe from Tony Butt on Vimeo.
Goose barnacles. Photo: Tony Butt
Collecting goose barnacles, as a way of extracting resources from the Earth for human consumption, is more sustainable than most other modern resource-extraction methods (think mining, oil extraction, monocrop farming). To ensure the barnacles don’t all disappear, their collection is strictly controlled by the authorities. Anybody who is caught collecting more than their fair share will be subject to massive penalties. But there are more pragmatic reasons for not over-collecting. For example, percebeiros are usually allocated a certain stretch of coastline that they are allowed to work. If they over-exploit their own area, there will simply be none to collect next time. If they decide to collect out-of-season or in somebody else’s territory and are not caught by the authorities, they will be castigated by the other percebeiros, which could be worse.
Of course, there are still problems with poachers, who either don’t understand or simply don’t care about the consequences of over-exploitation. Also, to a certain extent, the recent financial crisis has shifted people’s focus towards short-term financial gain. However, things are still better nowadays than they were in the past. Elias explains:
“A few decades ago, the goose barnacle almost disappeared from northwest Iberia. Nowadays, numbers have recovered, in part due to the heavy fines and strict control, but also due to a better understanding by the percebeiros themselves. Nowadays, poaching and over-collection by a few individuals is simply not tolerated by the rest of the percebeiro community.”
The amount of barnacles collected at each go-out (once a day, usually a couple of hours either side of low tide) is also strictly controlled. Around this area it is typically six-to-eight kilograms per person per go-out.
The working season for barnacle collecting is decided between the local authorities and the percebeiros themselves. The typical season in northwest Iberia is from October to April, leaving the calm summer for reproduction and growth. However, some really exposed areas can be worked all year round. Jacobo Rodriguez, percebeiro and big-wave surfer from the central coast of Asturias, works at Cabo Peñas, one of the most exposed parts of the Spanish north coast:
“Even though we are allowed to work all year round at Cabo Peñas, it’s impossible to go out if there’s a minimum amount of swell. Together with a special rotation program developed by biologists, this protects the barnacles from over-exploitation.”
Being a percebeiro has a lot of similarities to being a surfer. Both activities are done right on the coastline in breaking waves, and you need to be fit and a good swimmer to do them properly. Plus, you need to be fully tuned-in to the tides and the wave conditions. In fact, you need to practically live your life based around the ocean to be successful at either activity.
Elias was born a few metres from the sea in a town where surfing was already popular, so he was already a surfer before he became a percebeiro:
“Being a surfer definitely helps you in your work as a percebeiro. If I wasn’t a surfer I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to become a percebeiro; one thing leads to another.”
El Ruso was brought up close to the ocean in an area less popular for surfing:
“From an early age I’ve always been attracted to the sea: fishing, swimming, diving, sailing small boats, etc. When I found out about surfing it was an obvious move to start, and then when the opportunity came up to be a percebeiro it also seemed the obvious thing to do.”
The barnacles grow in areas where large waves break over dangerous rocks, putting a physical limit on where the percebeiro can safely operate. The best barnacles are found where it is too dangerous to operate, and the safest places to operate don’t contain good barnacles. The most talented and experienced percebeiros work as close to that fine line as possible. Crossing the line could mean serious injury or death, but being too far on the safe side means not bringing home the goods.
Change “barnacles” for “waves” and change “percebeiro” for “surfer” in that last paragraph and you could easily be talking about big-wave surfing.
Jacobo Rodriguez (in red) shares a wave with Kohl Christensen at a Spanish big-wave pointbreak. Photo: Jeff Flindt
In a previous article, I talked about how surfing puts us into a state of intense concentration called Flow, where the past, the future and everything apart from your immediate surroundings disappear from your mind, leaving you relaxed and rejuvenated. According to Alejandro, collecting barnacles has the same effect:
“When you are having a good day, you really become absorbed in collecting, like a form of meditation. This total concentration allows the other parts of your brain to relax, because all your brain-power is taken up with collecting. Therefore, even though the work is physically exhausting, you come back more relaxed than you were when you started. Sometimes you see groups of percebeiros on the cliff top or in the harbour arguing before they go out, very nervous and aggressive. But once they come back they are all best mates, totally calm.”
Jacobo explains that collecting barnacles is close to those activities we did in the past—still embedded in our genetic memories—that put us in a state of Flow:
“I would say that collecting barnacles, it is very close to being a primal activity of the human species, a type of activity that has changed very little in tens of thousands of years, where most of which we lived as hunter-gatherers.”
Alejandro, Elias, Jacobo and El Ruso are percebeiros because they chose to be. But in Spain this is a fairly recent thing. Until a few decades ago, almost all percebeiros did it because they had no other options open to them. Some would go out and collect barnacles even if they were scared of the sea or couldn’t swim. Surfing and other “recreational” uses of the ocean were almost non-existent, and most people who ventured in or anywhere near the ocean did so out of obligation, not for pleasure. Elias explains:
“If you are always scared and preoccupied, you will be distracted and therefore unable to get into that full concentration mode. As a result you will probably not collect such good barnacles as someone who has a healthy, intelligent respect for the sea but is not scared shitless every time they go out.”
However, there is another side to it. Jacobo points out that, even if you are an experienced big-wave surfer or strong sea-swimmer, that very confidence could get you in trouble:
“The behaviour of the ocean at the bottom of a rocky cliff where you are collecting barnacles is very different from out there in the line-up. As surfers we are used to seeing bigger waves coming at us, but with less serious consequences. Therefore, collecting barnacles we can end up with an over-relaxed attitude. But percebeiros who are not used to seeing big waves are a lot more careful. To them, every day out there on the rock is an exercise in survival so they can’t afford to drop their guard.”
Of course, there is more to being a percebeiro than meets the eye, and sometimes things can be difficult. Just like surfing big waves: to an onlooker it might look easy, whereas in actual fact it requires a great deal of skill and experience. One of the most difficult times is before you even start collecting—you have to choose which spot contains the best barnacles, and then find out whether you can physically get there. Sometimes you need to climb down treacherous cliffs or swim across from one rock to another. Before you commit yourself you also have to decide whether you are going to be able to safely collect good barnacles once you get there. This requires careful observation of the conditions and a mental “dry-run,” taking into account all the factors including your own level of ability. Again, very similar to what happens before a session in big waves.
(Above and below) Sometimes just getting to the spot in the first place can be difficult. Photos: Tony Butt
Elias and Alejandro avoid getting ‘caught inside.’ Photo: Tony Butt
Once the barnacles have been collected, they have to be taken to the market to be sold. Some people hate the selling part. A few people like it, but most just tolerate it as an obvious necessity. El Ruso enjoys both the collecting and the selling:
“I like both aspects, collecting and selling, but the best is when you know you have chosen the right spot, collected the best barnacles and the reward is that you get a good price for them. The market fluctuates according to the sea conditions. The best is when you can get good barnacles when the sea is rough because everybody else can only get poor-quality ones. The trick is to know how to read the weather forecast and sea predictions, and choose where to go the next day. Just like surfing, if you can choose with skill you will be able to get the best barnacles in the roughest conditions with the minimum amount of risk. It’s just like surfing in that respect.”
Jacobo loves the collecting but hates the selling:
“Collecting barnacles is far from the tedious activity that people think it is. When I’m out on the rock, I’m in that state of Flow and the hours fly by. In contrast, going back to the market to sell the barnacles seems totally artificial and unsatisfactory. Also, the thing that frustrates me more than anything is when you get these middle-men involved in the transactions. Without doing any real work they end up making more money than we do, so the percebeiros suffer and the customers suffer.”
Alejandro tries not to think about the selling until he is out of the ocean:
“If you are thinking about how much you are going sell them for afterwards, you are distracted, out of concentration, and therefore don’t collect good barnacles. You have to get your head down and concentrate on just collecting, nothing else.”
This is reminiscent of surfing for a reward, albeit with an important difference. If you think too much about the prize while you are surfing you will not catch the biggest wave. The big difference is that, with surfing, the wave itself should always be a bigger reward than any money or fame won afterwards. Obviously, collecting goose barnacles doesn’t make much sense unless you are going to sell them afterwards or bring them home to feed your family. Perhaps this is because collecting barnacles is “real work,” whereas surfing is just “playing.”
Tony Butt out on the peak (above), while a percebeiro (below) works the shoreline at the same spot. Photos: Txetxo
In summary, making a living by collecting barnacles by hand on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is probably considered a little primitive by most people. In contrast, a biological engineer working for a large multinational corporation designing genetically modified wheat, for example, is considered highly respectable. To me that seems backwards. The less a profession contributes to environmental problems the more it ought to be approved of, not the other way around. The very simplicity of being a percebeiro and the closeness to Nature makes it a good way of symbolizing sustainability, and a good example to follow.
Percebeiros are probably fitter, happier, less stressed and simply more alive than most people working in modern professions. Collecting barnacles is a bit closer to a job that satisfies our genetic programming over thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. It gives one a special sense of satisfaction only found in children and in those of us lucky enough to surf, climb or do a small number of close-to-Nature activities.
El Ruso puts it very simply: “Being a surfer and percebeiro means that most of my time is filled up with doing something I enjoy. So what more could you want?”
For more on the life of a percebeiro, check out this award-winning short film by David Beriain.
Video: Sea Bites (english subtitles) from enpiedeguerra on Vimeo.