homestories Marine Studies Initiative Student Research

A Market for Barnacles

Julia Bingham launches a study of barnacle biology and culture on the Oregon coast.

In Spain, a plate of gooseneck barnacles will set you back more than the cost of a lobster dinner. Known as percebes, goosenecks “set the palate in ecstasy,” a Barcelona chef recently told a reporter. Nevertheless, Julia Bingham winced a little last spring when asked if she had ever tried the tube-shaped delicacies while she was studying them as an undergraduate at Oregon State University.

“I get that question a lot, and it kills me to say ‘no,’” said Bingham, who had gingerly navigated the wave-tossed shore of Cape Perpetua to collect barnacle samples for her University Honors College thesis. “It’s supposed to be sweeter than crab or lobster and taste like the ocean.”

Gooseneck barnacles dot rocks at Smelt Sands back in Yachats. (Photo: Julia Bingham)
Gooseneck barnacles dot rocks at Smelt Sands beach in Yachats. (Photo: Julia Bingham)

In Spain and other parts of the world, that reputation has been the barnacles’ downfall. Harvesters go to extremes to scrape the crustaceans (relatives of shrimp and krill as well as crab and lobster) from the rocks. The fishers wade into pounding surf or hang precariously on ropes just above the waves. Populations of Pollicipes pollicipes collapsed as prices reached as high as $50 per pound.

During a summer 2015 field course at Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Bingham learned about the gooseneck problem. She also discovered that a similar species, Pollicipes polymerus, grows abundantly on the West Coast. She wondered if this animal, which lives among mussels and extends what amounts to a leg into the passing surf, could pose an opportunity for fishermen. And if so, how could Oregon avoid overharvesting local populations?

Goosenecks are opportunists. They sometimes grow on top of acorn barnacles. (Photo courtesy of Julia Bingham)
Goosenecks are opportunists. They sometimes grow on top of acorn barnacles. (Photo courtesy of Julia Bingham)

Bingham found that there was little published information about goosenecks on the Oregon coast. She sought research advice from OSU marine biologists Bruce Menge, Sally Hacker and Sarah Henkel. With help from two friends and fellow students, Max Afshar and Levi Vasquez, she did preliminary population surveys at Cape Perpetua and Cape Foulweather.

Last winter and spring, as a student in assistant professor Mark Novak’s marine ecology lab, Bingham launched the first systematic evaluation of gooseneck barnacle biology in Oregon. She “chased the low tide,” she says, meaning that she sometimes got up in the middle of the night to arrive at her Cape Perpetua field site before dawn when the tides were out far enough for her to safely do her research.

In 2015, her work earned a “best undergraduate paper” award at a meeting of the Western Society for Naturalists in California.

This summer, she is building on her results with support from Oregon Sea Grant. In a collaboration with University of Oregon professor Alan Shanks at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston and with Tom Calvanese, director of Oregon State’s Port Orford Field Station, she is surveying populations on jetties — rock walls built to enhance navigation — where commercial harvesting would likely start. She is also testing methods to encourage goosenecks to reproduce and grow.

As part of the project, Calvanese and Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, an organization that supports local fishers, will explore the possibility of developing a West Coast market for goosenecks. By encouraging collaboration between scientists, fishers and the public, Bingham and her team aim to foster a sustainable approach to management.

Julia Bingham
Julia Bingham

“The barnacles need specific conditions to colonize and settle,” Bingham says. “And they don’t grow everywhere. As they develop into adults, there’s a lot of mortality along the way. It takes a long time for them to reach harvestable size. The recruits take at least a couple of years to become adults, and growth tends to slow.

“Part of what makes the barnacles’ life history traits so sensitive to overharvest is that they settle onto each other,” she adds. “Harvesting clumps kills not just adults but the juveniles, which would already take a long time to grow enough to replace the harvested adults in the population.”

Shelby Walker, Oregon Sea Grant director, says she was deeply impressed by Bingham’s persistence and enthusiasm. “This is exactly the type of work that Sea Grant strives to support, a project that truly integrates research and community engagement,” she said.

In Spain and Portugal, scientists and fishers have worked to restore gooseneck populations without closing the fishery. Oregon has a chance to learn from that experience and get ahead of a new opportunity before problems arise, adds Bingham.

It may be well worth the wait. “I finally tried the barnacles,” she says. “Members of our research team boiled up some goosenecks from the rocks at one of our field sites. I can confirm that they are sweeter than crab with a distinctly salty ocean taste.”

In 2016, Bingham received her undergraduate honors degrees in biology and international studies from Oregon State.

Goosenecks share tidepools at Yachats Smelt Sands beach. (Photo courtesy of Julia Bingham)
Goosenecks share tidepools at Yachats Smelt Sands beach. (Photo courtesy of Julia Bingham)

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.