Fishermen risk it all off the 'Coast of Death'

Story highlights

  • Alvaro Laiz photographed people who collect goose barnacles in northwestern Spain
  • The fishermen are risking injury and death for the expensive delicacy

(CNN)Along the rough, rocky waters of northwestern Spain's Costa da Morte ("Coast of Death") is where you find the finest percebes. Also known as goose barnacles, the hard, leathery crustaceans that cling to coastal rocks are among the most expensive seafood in the world, selling for as much as $125 per pound.

Percebeiros, or goose barnacle fishermen, risk injury and death to get their hands on the rare, expensive delicacy. They jump from their boats to razor-sharp rocks in the aptly named waters, where the winds are fiercest and the tide is highest. As they scale rocks and swim through underwater caves to identify the best percebes, they're also trying not to get swept away by the tide.
    The more dangerous the spot, the better the barnacle.
    Photographer Alvaro Laiz has been following percebeiros for the last five years, documenting one community in the village of Aguino for his photo series "Atlantes."
    Photographer Alvaro Laiz
    "I've always been interested in the traditional relationships between humans and nature," Laiz said over email. "The way of life of the people from the Coast of Death has changed quickly during the last 15 years, and I wanted to document and be part of this transition."
    The change Laiz refers to is Spain's transition from economic boom to recession. The country experienced rapid growth in the late 1990s, combined with a housing bubble that made it easier to buy homes with the help of cheap loans. In 2008, however, the housing bubble popped. Together with the impact of the global financial crisis that began in 2007, Spain began to plunge into a deep recession -- one that its communities are still struggling to recover from.
    The economic crisis drove people who might have otherwise sought jobs in fields such as construction back to the goose barnacle industry.
    Fran is the youngest percebeiro in his family. He quit his university studies for a job in construction, but once Spain's real-estate market collapsed, he was forced to join the family business.

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    "For the younger ones with no higher studies, it has been tougher," Laiz said. "Ten years ago, many of them were working jobs that were better paid and with fewer risks. But then the crisis came up and they have to come back to their father's or even grandfather's way of life."
    And while harvesting goose barnacles was once considered a man's job, economic hardships prompted Concha to dive in as well. During goose barnacle season, she spends three to four hours on the rocks every morning looking for percebes. Afterward, she returns to tend to the family's farm while her husband takes his turn on the waters.
    Jose Manuel had to take on two jobs to support himself. He spends seven to 14 hours in the ocean on a normal day, gathering razor shells and sea urchins after he's collected the allowed quota of goose barnacles.
    In Aguino, there are about 80 to 100 percebeiros working legally, although others have taken to hunting illegally at night, Laiz said. As regulations on the amount of percebes one can collect have tightened and the cost of licenses to work in the waters has increased, the Galician coast has seen a rise in poaching. While the water is more dangerous at night and the penalties for getting caught are high, the lucrative returns from the goose barnacles justify the risks.
    It's that audacity from the percebeiros that Laiz finds most striking.
    "Because of the danger they face while collecting goose barnacles, they have been always surrounded of a certain aura," Laiz said. "Once I got to know them, I noticed they refuse to be anything else than seamen. People who know and respect the risk of the ocean."