It’s illegal, dangerous, and it still goes on.

Poaching eggs is one thing but poaching on the sea has been a long time problem in Newfoundland. There are air and sea patrols to monitor, prevent, and eventually arrest the violators. It is not something taken lightly. But and not surprisingly it is a global issue. Wherever money, however small, can be made, theft is sure to be right behind it. And as often as not, too many thieves get away with it at the cost of those trying to eke out a living.

This is an article from the May 15, 2014 New York Times about poaching off the coast of Spain.

 

Trading Danger for Delicacy

On Spain’s Galician coast, generations of licensed divers scrape gooseneck barnacles in roiling surf to serve eager gourmands who pay up to 100 euros a kilo for the cherished crustaceans. Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

 

A CORUÑA, Spain — Roberto Mahia, 44, was leaning against his car waiting for the sun to rise before pulling on the frayed wet suit at his feet when two vehicles pulled up not far away.

“Those are poachers,” Mr. Mahia declared, staring hard in the direction of their headlights. “We know those cars.”

On this morning, however, there would be no confrontation. The poachers soon moved on, apparently unwilling to tangle with Mr. Mahia and the other men gathered here who were trained and licensed to scramble among the crashing waves of the rocky Galician coastline in the country’s northwest corner, prying loose and collecting a rare prize for epicures — gooseneck barnacles.

The work has always been dangerous. All the men waiting for daybreak had scars to show. Avelino Mosteiro, 54, once got 36 stitches in his thigh. On another occasion, he got 18 stitches under his arm. But the work also used to be highly paid before the economic crisis, when restaurants clamored for the rare crustaceans.

These days, however, the men and women who do this for a living say it is hard to make ends meet. Certainly, there are fewer Europeans able to afford expensive treats of any kind.

But worse, there are the poachers, many of them out-of-work citizens, trying to make money any way they can. Their scavenging brings prices down further and depletes the area of barnacles, forcing the licensed collectors to work in more remote and difficult areas, often for a poorer haul.

“Fifteen days ago, we were on those rocks,” Mr. Mahia said, pointing out a jagged outcropping in the distance. “Two of us were legal collectors, and 11 were poachers.”

In the heady days before Spain’s economic crisis, barnacle collectors, many who learned the art of dodging waves from their parents, could earn more than $800 in a few hours. But on a recent morning the men here had collected only four or five pounds of barnacles each, most of them small and of less than ideal quality. Perhaps, they said, they could get $135 for them, maybe less.

In the past, the men said, they would not even have tried to go out on a day with such choppy seas. But lately, they could not afford to let any opportunity go by.

The barnacles, known as percebes in Spanish, can be collected only under certain conditions, including the point in the lunar cycle when tides are lowest.

Along the coast here, some restaurants offer barnacles for as much as $80 a serving. In Madrid, the price can be much higher. Cooking them is simple. They are generally boiled for just a few minutes. Aficionados compare them to oysters, not for their texture, which is chewier, but for their subtle sea taste.

Spanish officials agree that the unemployment rate has prompted more and more untrained people to take their chances in the rocky inlets here, occasionally paying with their lives.

“If from time to time you hear about someone dying doing this, it is almost always a poacher,” said Rosa Quintana Carballo, Galicia’s regional minister of the rural environment and the sea.

On Spain’s Galician Coast, the Hard Life of Barnacle Hunting

Lala Gonzalez, left, and her sister, Susana Gonzalez, collecting barnacles on the coast of Baiona, in the northern Spain region of Galicia. Considered a luxury seafood item, the barnacles, known as percebes, provide a livelihood for many families.  Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

In some areas, as in Baiona, a village farther down the coast, the licensed collectors have grown so frustrated that they are paying private security guards to patrol the area on land and on sea. The government splits the bill with them.

One morning, one of Baiona’s guards, Darío Freire, guided his S.U.V. up a hill so he could use binoculars to scan the coastline. He said confronting poachers was a dangerous business.

“I have been punched, threatened with a stick,” Mr. Freire said. “They have thrown things at the car and smashed the windows. It isn’t easy.”

Mostly, he said, he just alerts the police, who give the poachers summonses. But like José Do Val, 62, who readily admitted that he had been collecting barnacles that morning, most of the poachers are far too broke to pay the fines, so they are not a deterrent.

Mr. Do Val, who said he was once an executive in a food distribution company and dined regularly on barnacles, estimates that he has collected more than $135,000 in fines for poaching. “I’m not really sure how much it was,” he said. “It’s not something that really interests me.”

Galicia has struggled in the last few years with an unemployment rate of about 27 percent, one of the highest in the country. It once had a thriving shipping industry. But that is in shambles now, and there are few jobs that pay much for anyone. Police units assigned to stop the barnacle poachers are stretched thin and have perhaps more pressing business, keeping an eye on those who dig for clams in polluted areas, for instance, and then bleach them to make them look right.

“After what I have seen, I am finished with eating clams,” said Juan Da Rocha, who heads a regional police unit that concentrates on illegal fishing.

In Baiona, many of the barnacle collectors are women. Susana González works with her three sisters, who like her went to school for other professions, but ended up in wet suits instead. Though collecting barnacles is difficult, most of the people in this business find being up at dawn in the sea, without a boss, an attractive way of life. “You are free,” Mrs. González said. “I like that.”

After a successful morning collecting, the women gathered at the local auction house hoping that all the talk of economic recovery coming out of Madrid would mean higher prices. But that was not the case. Even the biggest barnacles sold for about $40 a pound, less than half the opening price.

“We really thought we would do better,” Mrs. González said with a sigh.

In which I get it right.

As I wrote earlier, when we were sitting in the airport, my lovely bride happened upon a postcard for a perfectly wonderful B&B. And as I wrote, I through my infinite wisdom had booked us for three nights in this wonderful place. Am I good or what?

We are now on our way to this wonderful Newfoundland version of Brigadoon, but without bagpipes. Since we are departing from the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and driving up to Port Rexton near Trinity, about 260 miles. Not a bad drive, 4-5 hours with stops especially if we can find a Tim Horton’s.

Typical Newfoundland bog. (eoearth.org.)

Newfoundland has been settled almost exclusively on the coast line. It is a very big coast. As we drive from Burin north, we travel mostly inland. Lots of bogs, ponds, no moose sightings, and lots of rocks and birch trees. Since everything revolved around fishing, there is hardly anything resembling a town. This is not to say no one lives out there. We pass small enclaves of homes along the way. Just what they do for employment is something we haven’t been able to determine. Still, I wouldn’t mind living there either.

As we head towards that days destination, we start to see more small towns. They are different from the outports since they are still a ways inland from the water. But it lets us know we’re almost there. And then we crest a hill and a sign for our destination appears. Hot damn! This is where I really start to look like I know what I’m doing on this trip. Fisher’s Loft is even better in real life than the beautiful image on their postcard. The views are spectacular and it’s getting on towards dinner.

We check in to our room (it’s a suite!) with an incredible vista of the bay with some small islands in it. In the distant is a fog partially covering a small mountain/hill(?) – beautiful whatever its nomenclature. We clean up and go downstairs to enjoy a drink on the front porch of the main building. At the bar is a picture of Kevin Spacey and the entire crew of the film The Shipping News. They stayed there. Oh, yes, this is getting better by the minute.

Fisher’s Loft (been-seen.com)

We finish our drinks and head into the dining room. OK, this is getting ridiculous. The dining room is decorated beautifully with hand-made furniture from a local craftsman. His furniture also occupies our room. Wait, it gets even better.

The menus arrive and this is foodie heaven. And locavore heaven. They grow all their own produce. And wine heaven. Oh hell, it’s just heaven! And this is just dinner! We almost can’t wait for breakfast. The food is marvelous.

Breakfast doesn’t disappoint – along with regular fare, there are fresh pastries from the oven and partridgeberry jam. I wrote about partridgeberry jam in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. This jam is incredible.

I don’t want to leave. I wonder if they need a groundskeeper!

Partridgeberry jam: Nectar of the Gods.

I’m not getting out much anymore. Sounds almost like a song. No, that’s “Don’t get around much anymore.” Good try. Johnny, show Bruce what he’s won.

No, I’m not getting out. There is a lot of work to do on this book. While I’m deeply involved in now creating the bones for “Arn? Narn.”, I find myself mightily homesick for Newfoundland. As I’ve written before, it has been a singularly transformative experience. To requote my wife from an earlier blog entry: “Where you’re born is not necessarily where you’re from.” Ergo – homesick.

I’m everyday looking at images from a land I’ve grown to love immensely. And it is so far away my heart feels as if it will break. I do miss it that much. (Little man on my shoulder – “Oh, grow the hell up!”)

OK, sniff-sniff, I will.

While I’m printing the photographs for the book, I am still keeping up with news from Newfoundland on the internet. I want to keep it as current as possible and include anything that might impact the story.

I see ads for restaurants, coffee shops, B&B’s, whale watches, etc. Some of these I’ve been to and remember them fondly. Other ads are just that, ads. Ads for car dealers; ads for hospital supplies (always good to know where you can get a splint in a hurry); and ads for other sundry items that I’ll never need. Whoa! What’s this?

It’s an ad for all things Newfoundland. And in that ad, partridgeberry jam. Now, if you’ve never had partridgeberry jam, write your will out now, pick out your box, and get your affairs in order. There’s no need to go on living. It’s that good.

This is it. The real stuff!

In other parts of the world, the partridgeberry in known as the lingonberry. I don’t know – that sounds like something you might call someone who’s a little drunk or just not with it. With slurred speech: “That guy’s a lingonberry!” Now, partridgeberry – not so – there’s a nobility to that.

“I’ll have the scones with the partridgeberry jam on it, James.” That sounds proper, doesn’t it? Now, replace it with lingonberry and you might as well be living in a trailer. “Puh-leeze pass the lingonberry jelly, Paw!” No, it has to be partridgeberry. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Woo-hoo! I called this store and they will ship it to the US. Of course who knows what customs would do when they got their hands on it. I can see it now – you’re driving through the gate at the US/Canada border and the Canadian guard is slathering my partridgeberry jam all over his Tim Horton donut while asking you for your papers! Homeland security my foot!

I order 4 jars of this edible soul salve and wait until it passes through the gauntlet of regulation and illicit tasting by border guards. It arrives. The top of each jar is covered with a cute, red piece of fabric. How precious! Tear that $%$!* off and give me the jam, damn it!

Once opened, once tasted, calm and contentment are restored. All that from just a little jar of partridgeberry jam. Yeah. it’s really that good. Yes, b’y.

Part 2: Kicking back at Red’s Lounge…

The afternoon was spent walking around the island taking pictures of local signage, laundry lines, wind turbines, boats (mostly in dry dock as there was no fishing here either), and coves. If it moved I photographed it. If it stood still, I photographed it. Yup, there I was again, taking pictures of nothing! But really good pictures of nothing if I say so myself. It moved, it stood still, it was a wind turbine, I photographed it.

Sidebar -There’s a woman who paints all the house numbers and signs and mailboxes on the island; a limited growth opportunity indeed, yet the local art scene is definitely defined by her! And it was sort of like being in her island-wide showroom. She was that prolific. Certainly she had her themes down: boats, flags, fish, propellers, anchors, etc.

So the light was now fading and I wasn’t far behind it. I was in need of sustenance and it was too early to go back to the B&B for a formal dinner. Since I now knew the island like the back of my hand, it was back to Red’s. I was going to check out if they had any beer left. Photographing clotheslines creates a mighty thirst.

Lucky for me they had some left. I was welcomed back by Gerard and the locals (sounds like a perfect bar band!) whom I’d met earlier and introduced to some new (to me) citizens. Someone had gone hunting and brought back some fresh moose meat. They had the aforethought to grind it up, make mooseburgers, and serve them to customers. And that’s how I came to have my first (and probably last) mooseburger. It was OK if you don’t mind eating the inspiration for a cartoon, but personally, I liked caribou better. (Please don’t tell my fiends at PETA!)

As I mentioned earlier, I stood out. I was not from there and one citizen had taken note of that and his concern was quite obvious. I couldn’t hear what he was saying to the others, but the not-so-furtive and mildly hostile glances could not be overlooked. Hmmmm – what to do? It would clear soon enough.

Canary in the global coal mine.

Currently indigenous to Newfoundland are moose, caribou, salmon, and some remaining cod. There are no naturally residing canaries on the island. However, in this case, the island itself was the canary.

Why is Newfoundland important? In much the same way the canary in a coal mine is important. That bird is an early warning of impending trouble. Ignore it at your own peril. In 1992, that is what happened in Newfoundland. Heard, seen, and ignored – just the opposite of the military phrase HUA(!) – Heard, Understood and Acknowledged. They (the government) heard the canary, saw it laying there, and essentially said, “Don’t pay that any attention” until it was too late. It was mismanagement writ large.

So, what was this canary? It was the disappearance of cod stocks. Stocks that had been fished for over 500 years and sustained Newfoundland throughout that time. Then in 1992, the government realized that the cod stocks had plummeted to perilously low levels and imposed a 10 year moratorium on cod fishing. Historically, they knew if left alone for 5-6 years, the stocks should return to previous levels. They didn’t. In actuality, they were in worse shape than before.

In those first 10 years, because there was no fishing, 20% of Newfoundland’s population left the island. It was an out-migration the likes of which had never been seen. And the lack of fishing created much hardship throughout the province. Newfoundlanders continue leaving the island in search of work returning occasionally for vacation. The Newfoundland musical group Ennis addresses this beautifully in their song, “Fortunate Ones.”

Now 20 years later, the moratorium is still in place. But then in 2006, 14 years after the original moratorium was put in place, Professor Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia published a paper that received world-wide notice. In this paper he predicted that by the middle of this century, the entire global stock of wild fish will be in total collapse. This is certainly the result of over-fishing; there is also growing evidence that ocean acidification may be contributing to this as well. Either way one looks at it, both of those causes are man-made.

The “canary” was laying there, gasping for breath and people essentially just walked on by. It has taken too long to realize what this means.

In the short term, forget about your seafood dinner, that isn’t going to happen unless you’ll be willing to take out a mortgage on it. Any fish we’ll have will come from farmed stocks and their purity is suspect.

In the long term, your guess is as good as anyone’s. No one knows what will happen to the seas themselves because of this shock to its eco-system.

So much for Red Lobster!

Newf-a-licious!

Newf-a-licious – it sounds like it could be a TV show on Bravo, E!, or Oxygen. Happily, it’s not that at all. Instead, it’s a word just coined to describe native Newfoundland cuisine. Oh, all the expected dishes are available and there are some very fine restaurants pushing the envelope for the foodies out there. But it’s the ones that really define Newfoundland gastronomical culture I want to share.

It’s a rare person who doesn’t know what cod, a favorite of mine, is. Fish and chips is a ubiquitous dish in many places around the world. But it’s an even rarer (non-Newfoundlander) person who knows what cod cheeks are. I’ve already written about scruncheons, but how about seal flipper pie? Or brewis? Figgy duff?

Cod cheeks are pretty self-explanatory if not easily attainable in the lower 48. It’s the fleshy part of the head considered to be a delicacy when cooked. Great late at night with some local brew.

Brewis – why, that’s no more than than hard tack (a bread) soaked in water and then boiled with salt cod and/or fat pork. This could very well be on the American Heart Association’s list of foods to eat in moderation and it’s very popular. It’s often the main course.

Or seal flipper pie. Of course you would want it fresh, so you’d go down to the docks in St. John’s and buy fresh seal flippers from the trucks, right off the boats. For many, it’s considered a delicacy. It wasn’t my favorite.

And then there’s figgy duff, a dessert, which really is quite nice. It’s a boiled pudding with raisins and saturated with molasses and was in the past thought of as a luxury.

Lest you think everything is made from lesser ingredients, there is caribou and moose. Caribou sausage is really good. The moose burger to my tastes needed a lot of extras like cheese, onions, etc; but not bad.

But wait, one must wash this down with a beverage, right? And besides all the usual alcoholic suspects including Screech, there’s local beer from the Quidi Vidi Brewing Co. right in St. John’s. I’m happy to say, I’ve sampled most of them and quaffed even more of certain ones and enjoyed them all.

Beer is not the only beverage made in St. John’s. Vodka made from iceberg water is very popular. Dan Ackroyd, he of Saturday Night Live, Blues Brothers, and Ghostbuster fame has made a vodka distilled from very pure iceberg water. It comes in a crystal skull (don’t ask why) and is sold thoughout the US.

There’s more but that’s the idea. At the end of the day, it’s all Newf-a-licious. Just don’t forget the beer or vodka.

I’ll have the Shiraz de Fogo, please.

If grapes grew in Newfoundland, this is what I imagine they would look like.

Indigenous to Newfoundland among other plants are the partridgeberry/lingonberry, bakeapple, elephanthead lousewort, mint, thistle, and pearly everlasting. Some of these I’d known of, well, maybe two or three. The others were new to me. But, nowhere on the island, not on any lists of flora, were there any grapes. And the same is true of Fogo Island on the north shore of Newfoundland.

So imagine my surprise when my hosts Glenn and Mathilda, while having me over for dinner, brought out a bottle of homemade wine. My experience with homemade wine has not been very good. Not that I’ve made it myself; I’m always too eager to open the bottle than wait for it to age properly. What I’ve had is mostly forgettable; some I’m still trying to forget. So it was with no small apprehension that I awaited it’s opening and subsequent decantation. What was it made from? I was already trying in advance to formulate a response to what I just knew was going to be horrible. These were genuinely nice, thoughtful people who wanted to share with me their craft and I did not want to hurt their feelings.

In anticipation of the dinner and as an early thanks to them, I had brought a bottle of wine as a gift to them. They opened it and we drank from that. It was a nice, unpretentious wine that certainly would not screw up our meal. It was a great dinner. We laughed, and talked about our families, etc. and went though the first bottle rather quickly.

Now, their bottle came out. Trapped! It had a nice label on it – Shiraz, it said with some information about its winemakers, Glenn and Mathilda. It looked OK; nice deep red color, it didn’t even smell bad. Actually, it smelled pretty good. I could not avoid this any longer, now came the moment of truth. I took a sip. I took a bigger sip. I then took a gulp. It was GOOD. I asked for another glass. My inner wino took over.

Now I don’t think Napa has much to worry about. Glenn and Mathilda’s production is rather small. But damn, it’s good. Who woulda thunk it? Newfoundland wine – yet another reason to go there. Not like I needed any more.

Man Cave by the sea.

New Year’s Eve in a shanty sounds a lot worse than it really is. Shanty doesn’t have the same connotation in rural Newfoundland as it does in the States. A shanty is the small building/house/cabin on the coast used by fishermen as a residence when going to and coming from the sea. It is for the most part a home-away-from-home. And oftentimes the subject of cute and quaint calendars and post cards of lands far-away.

But come the holidays and New Year’s Eve, all that changes. The shanty becomes the Newfoundland equivalent of a man-cave by the sea for the duration plus. And one can only speculate on behaviors conducted. The good news is that it’s usually far enough away from the children and pets.

Celebrations – oh, yes. Singing and dancing – yes b’y. Eating and drinking, why the hell not? Fishing – probably not much. But when it’s cold, windy, wet and/or snowy, and more, and the holidays to boot, why would you want to do anything but the aforementioned activities? Consequently, inebriation is often the result. A common comment then heard might be “Goin’ on a tear, me son?” translated as “partying with enthusiasm are we?” Count on it. After all, it is the new year.

Lobsters and a screw cap.

On the western coast of Newfoundland, I drive through such towns as Cow Head, Sally’s Cove, Three Mile Rock, (not to be confused with the atomic town in Pennsylvania), and Spudgels Cove. (Who was Spudgels that he was important enough to have a cove named after him?) Each one of these has it’s own personality waiting to be discovered by an intrepid traveler such as me. But not now as I’m on a quest. I’ve learned fresh lobster can be had inexpensively here. I make a short stop to see The Arches Provincial Park. This is a natural rock arch formation acting as a gateway to the ocean. I think however, most people probably just go around it to get there. But it does form a wonderful backdrop for new photographs.

The sea is starting to kick up into what will develop on the next day into a pretty fierce storm. Unfortunately, most of the lobster traps on the western coast will be lost.

But for this day, the lobstermen are making the most of their efforts. No longer permitted to fish for cod, they’ve turned to lobstering and crabbing. The lobstering season is very short, lasting only 5-6 weeks. In this time, the lobstermen will catch enough to deliver to the fishery and also help feed their family throughout the year. However, according to the lobstermen, eating lobster all year long gets old fast. When asked what they do the rest of the year, his reply was, “Well, we just —- around.” OK, sounds good. But in the meantime, I’m told if I go down to the fishery which is conveniently located near the cabin in which I’m staying, they’ll cook me up some lobsters fresh and really cheap. This is getting better all the time.

Down to the fishery I go and place my gluttonous order of two(!) lobsters to be picked up at 7:00 PM. Back to the cabin, drop off my equipment, get a bottle of wine from the market, and then pick up my lobsters. I go to the counter and pick up my dinner and am charged the princely sum of $ 11.00! Cooked and ready to eat! And the wine has a screw cap! I’m in heaven.

Scrunchions and my new BFF.

Pretty much every culture has a way of maximizing their foods and recycling heretofore inedible scraps of food detritus. And if it’s a fancy restaurant, they’ll give it a posh name and charge dearly for it. How else could one explain veal cheeks? Please do not confuse this with cod cheeks; the concept is the same, the cost is not.

This leads me to the ubiquitous Newfoundland delicacy know as the scrunchion. These are small pieces of pork fatback, that might normally be tossed away, but are fried until rendered and crispy. They’re often used as a flavoring or even a condiment over other foods such as fish or potatoes or the local favorite fish and brewis. For those out there with a theological or Quebecois bent, they are often called orielles de Christ or Christ ears. I’m not certain I want to know why.

 

And this, at my first lunch in Newfoundland, was when I was introduced to scrunchions. I was meeting for the first time the photographer who I had befriended by phone the year before when doing my research. I visited his studio and what I thought would be a cordial introduction turned into a 3.5 hour lunch and discussion. We photographers can talk! What a genuinely nice guy and a really good photographer. We went across the street to a local pub to have lunch. And there was my first encounter with scrunchions. They were sprinkled over my fish and chips. The F&C: good. Scrunchions: like fine scotch – an acquired taste. They were different. And that’s all I’m going to say on that at this time.

My new acquaintance was soon to become my new friend. His help and guidance was invaluable. I might still be up there now driving around, dodging moose, looking for who knows what (and I’m not saying that’s really a bad thing up there) if not for his direction. His wife was just plain charming. We got on so well, we met for drinks later that evening. I was experiencing the unbelievable but natural hospitality of Newfoundlanders. This was going to be great.