Gooseneck barnacles are found attached to ocean rocks off the coast of Canada and are regarded as fine delicacies. In the T’aaq-wihak fishing area of Canada, the barnacles have been a food source to the members of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation for thousands of years. The commercial fishery, however, is more recent.
The barnacles are difficult to harvest, as the best specimens are located on the edge of the rocks where waves constantly wash over the crustaceans. They are gathered by hand and scraped directly from the rocks. The barnacles have been described as “pure chewy expression[s] of salty ocean, an essence that cannot normally be chewed.”
The new and safer Nuu-chah-nulth fishery was recently opened due to a landmark Supreme Court of British Columbia decision allowing for its existence. The ruling upheld the protection of constitutional rights of the five defendant Nations to commercially harvest and sell fish from their original territories.
Once the clumps of barnacles are hand-separated, they are delivered to distributors. In Portugal and Spain, the barnacles are separated according to grade and sold according to quality – a practice which does not yet happen in Canada. They are served in fine dining establishments year-round.
The practice is not for inexperienced fishermen. Gathering the barnacles is often dangerous due to ocean conditions. In fact, as an earlier version of the fishery grew, the number of inexperienced harvesters also increased. No safety protocols existed back in the mid-80’s, when the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had issued 467 fishing licenses.
The latest fishery is now co-managed by the DFO and the First Nations.
The court case that upheld the rights of the First Nations is now back in court for something called a “justification trial.” Canada’s government must prove why the “continued infringements” of the Nations’ aboriginal rights may be justified by the federal government’s responsibility to “balance societal interests.” In essence, the Canadian government is arguing that the country’s societal interests outweigh the rights of the Nations to fish on their traditional territories.
The outcome of the trial could lead to the success of the fishery or close it. In the meantime, the fishery managers state that, “The people on the ground are doing everything they can to make it work.”
While the five nations have developed management plans for several species, including salmon and shellfish, the DFO has only granted one license – for the barnacles.