Explore the Oregon Coast—but don’t touch the ‘dragon toes’

Foraging is a cultural tradition in this region but plucking salty-sweet gooseneck barnacles risks their disappearance. Here’s what to do instead.

Rough waves slam into the slippery rocks of Barview Jetty, an aging, gnarly outcropping marking the narrow entrance to Oregon’s Tillamook Bay. By twilight, the storm and a king tide subside, revealing what resemble the toes of a secret sleeping dragon sticking out from the rocks just north of the jetty.

These black-and-white “toes” are gooseneck barnacles, a delicacy with a unique flavor, like clams and lobsters with a wave of sea-salted sweetness. They can demand as much as $100 per pound in Europe, where top restaurants serve them grilled, in escabeche, or smoked over oak. Here, along this sparsely populated coast, the crustacean embodies the region’s merroir, or “taste of a place,” and are free to take for anyone with a $28 shellfishing permit.

But local forager Kristen Penner prefers you don’t. Although their habitat among crashing waves seems to indicate their indestructibility, gooseneck barnacles are actually quite fragile. They require specific conditions and rarely regrow where large patches have been harvested. Even careful plucking could lead to shrinking populations, robbing the shoreline of one of its natural treasures.

That’s why Penner—one of only four people with a state commercial harvesting license—made the painful decision last summer to stop gathering them for area restaurants. “There’s a fine line between wanting people to experience the flavor and making sure that it doesn’t get destroyed,” she says.

Connecting with the coast

Gooseneck barnacles, or percebes in Spanish (pronounced “per-SEH-bez”), grow as far north as Alaska and all the way south to Baja California in Mexico. But they are illegal to gather in California, and neither Alaska nor Washington have established commercial fisheries. One didn’t exist in Oregon when Penner first started selling them.

Back then, she cold-called restaurants in Portland and slowly built a business of small orders from curious chefs. “The ones that really did care, it was really fun to have that connection, and to have that reason to come out and find percebes,” she says.

Chef Maylin Chavez was one of those chefs, whose Olympia Oyster Bar in Portland, Oregon, opened in 2014 and has since closed. When Penner mentioned percebes, Chavez recalls her excitement. “I was always looking for things I grew up with,” she says. “In Baja, we ate them by the bowlful.”

“My grandfather and I would stroll down the beach and pick up lunch,” Chavez says. They gathered Pismo and chocolate clams, mussels, along with percebes as they strolled the sand in Salinas, then sat down for picnics, shucking the shellfish with a little old knife and dressing them with hot sauce and limes.

“Growing up in that environment, that’s what we ate. It’s definitely part of why I do what I do,” adds Chavez, who even has a dog named Percy, short for Percebes.

Penner dreams of locals and visitors having that kind of relationship with the shellfish along the coast near Garibaldi. “It’s a whole process of being in the environment. The journey to go and harvest, then bringing it home and being able to eat something,” she says.

(Urban foraging is the new way to explore a city.)

A hard truth

As restaurants closed at the beginning of the pandemic, Penner began researching the region’s food systems and came to a devastating realization about the barnacles: “I don’t think there’s any way that if they were [commercialized], that they could be sustainable,” she says. “It’s great to have a little special something like this, but I’m not going to inspire overconsumption of a resource, of something that feels precious.” So, she stopped harvesting them.

The barnacles thrive in textured surfaces and aerated water—like the aggressive waves smashing into the rocky intertidal spaces around Tillamook Bay. Amid the tumult, they stick tightly, particularly on rough algae, mussels, and smaller barnacles, minimizing competition for space with anemones, sea stars, and soft algae that can’t survive the harsh waves. But over-harvested sections smooth that rough surface, rarely sprouting more percebes.

Julia Bingham, who researched the barnacles as an undergraduate and graduate student at Oregon State University, confirms Penner’s fears. She concluded that of Oregon’s billion adult goosenecks, only about 2 percent were large enough to harvest—about 275 tons. “Not enough for a large-scale commercial harvest,” she says.

(Decades of overfishing threaten the world’s oceans. Here’s what to know.)

However, Bingham is more optimistic than Penner. She believes that Oregon’s barnacle population could support small-scale individual or recreational harvests in the spirit of the slow-food movement—so long as it’s done the right way. Therein lies the rub: “We don’t know enough about the right way to harvest to make sure they return quickly,” says Bingham. Recreational harvesters are of particular concern for Penner, precisely because “they don’t really know how [to harvest the barnacles],” Penner says, noting growing interest.

“In Oceanside, there’s places that were covered in percebes when I first started coming here,” she remembers. Since then, she says, “There has been little cooking shows, and chefs go out, and go ‘Ooh, check out the gooseneck barnacles on the Oregon Coast!’ and within a few years, there’s none left. And they are not going to come back.”

Both Penner and Bingham agree that harvesting intertidal species can be an important aspect of engaging with the environment around us. Penner hopes that the barnacles can draw people to the region for coastal exploration, while serving as a cautionary tale of what the area stands to lose if visitors don’t explore and forage responsibly.

Continuing a tradition

Harvesting from the land has always been an essential part of the Oregon Coast. People from a mix of generations, speaking an assortment of languages, cast net pots into the sea from Garibaldi Pier and dig for clams on the tideflats below. “I saw how many other people came down here religiously to harvest these foods,” says Penner. “There’s just such a deep connection.”

(Your love for fresh oysters can help the planet.)

These days, Penner shows people tasty bits from the bay: the tiny wild mussels that grow among the percebes and the butter clams that many locals consider bait, although the latter has at least one fan.

“What do you mean, bait?” scoffs Chavez, who features the clams and other species rarely considered restaurant worthy at her pop-up, Nacar, highlighting the region’s merroir (a neologism from French mer, or “sea,” and terroir). “There’s so much bounty that is underutilized.”

Penner agrees, adding that a key catalyst to helping people appreciate the region’s natural treasures includes locals like Chavez, who are finding new ways to use what has long been considered unusable. “There’s an untapped potential,” says Penner, noting that visitors should take the chance to embrace and respect the entire ecosystem that makes up a destination. “It’s a pretty amazing opportunity that we all have.”

Naomi Tomky is an award-winning writer based in Seattle, Washington, who covers the intersection of food, culture, and travel. She is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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