Gooseneck barnacles are some of the most valuable shellfish in China—and some of the most dangerous to harvest. Pick the wrong time, and the ocean could sweep you away.
Sitting off the coast of Fujian Province in eastern China, Yangyu Island looks like nothing more than a barren outcrop of rocks, reef, and seaweed.
But underneath these waters lies a hidden gem.
The area is home to some of the most valuable shellfish in China. A pound of gooseneck barnacles, picked wild from the island’s rocks, can fetch up to $80 a pound.
Most of the people here make a living off fishing and collecting shellfish, but it’s a dangerous business. Some can only be harvested during low tide on the island’s cliffs. Pick the wrong time, and the ocean could sweep you away.
Ou Jianing is known by locals as the guardian of Yangyu Island. Every summer, he comes out to collect shellfish on the island’s jagged rocks.
“This one is really good,” he says, pointing to a barnacle that’s known in Chinese as “Buddha’s hand” because of its resemblance to two hands clasped in prayer. “You eat it like sunflower seeds.”
The shellfish here are known for being particularly meaty and juicy. Simply boiling some mussels in a bit of water produces a concentrated soup that’s rich in flavor, no salt needed.
Local fishermen like to trade stories about sailors who wash up on these shores and subsist on the area’s plentiful offerings.
“There was a guy whose ship sank, and he swam to a deserted little island,” Ou says with animated flair. “After half a year, he came back and told me that he ate raw fish for half a year.”
While island life might seem idyllic for these fishermen, their livelihoods depend entirely on the season’s weather conditions. A bad storm can devastate their entire business.
Typhoons have ripped up fishing nets, destroyed piers, and prevented divers from going out and harvesting shellfish.
“When it gets really close, the waves get very big,” says Song Wensheng, a diver who collects abalone and mussels. “Sometimes Taiwan’s mountains will shield us a bit and reduce the impact, but if the mountains don’t block it, it comes over directly.”
Another problem is overharvesting.
Shellfish take a long time to grow—some of the meatiest require 10 years—but high demand has taken a hit on the local population.
“Ten years ago, we had so many mussels,” Song says. “Now they’re harder to find.”
But the fishermen of Yangyu Island persist, heading to its shores every summer to reap the season’s harvest.