“It’s a no-brainer. We have no choice. If we want to have ‘opihi tomorrow, we need to care for them today.”
By Naomi Sodetani
Grasping the submerged rock, Walter Pu braces himself against the recurring onslaught of white waves crashing over him, each followed by a sucking surge. The deeply tanned, gray-haired Pu scans the foam-veiled surface for the presence of ‘opihi, a small, cone-shaped shellfish.
Onshore, his companion Hank Eharis inspects the rocks higher up in the splash zone, but ‘opihi are visibly sparse. “Can already tell this place has been pounded since we were here,” just a few months prior, the burly Hawaiian observes with dismay.
The two men have regularly harvested fish, limu and ‘opihi from this East Maui shoreline their whole lives, as their forebears had done for generations.
On this particular day, however, they have come not to gather ‘opihi, but to survey their size and numbers as part of a ground-breaking monitoring effort that seeks to save them.
Limpets At Risk
A limpet unique to Hawai‘i, the ‘opihi clings to rocks where the surf is roughest. It plays a key role in the nearshore ecosystem grazing on limu that form on rocks, keeping algae growth in check.
Since ancient times, Hawaiians have subsisted on ‘opihi and used the shells as fertilizer, scrapers for peeling taro, an edible root, and as jewelry. They dubbed ‘opihi “the fish of death” because so many people were swept away while prying it off the rocks.
But today, the ‘opihi itself is at risk. Their numbers on all of the main Hawaiian Islands have steeply declined in recent decades because of overharvesting, improper harvesting techniques and degraded habitat.
A new pilot project spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i now aims to turn the tide for the much-prized mollusk.
The project brings together Hawaiian cultural practitioners, scientists, local communities, resource managers and government agencies in a shared quest to gather baseline data on ‘opihi populations at three sites on the islands of Kaho‘olawe and Maui.
The “‘opihi partnership” integrates traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science to better understand ‘opihi populations — information that will benefit stewardship efforts and marine ecosystem health at these sites and beyond.
“‘Opihi is such an exciting species for a little limpet,” says Emily Fielding, the Conservancy’s Maui marine program director. “This little guy really gets everybody’s attention.”
Indeed, ‘opihi is a beloved island delicacy. Served raw at luau and parties, it is savored by locals for its crunchy texture and pungent tang of the sea. Ardent consumer demand, however, has driven the market price to nearly $200 a gallon. To keep pace, some pickers are overharvesting easily accessible areas and foraging ever further along the most rugged areas, scraping the rocks bare as they go.
Gathering Baseline Data on 'Opihi
“No doubt about it, the ‘opihi fishery has crashed,” says Christopher Bird, a marine ecologist with the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology. Recent genetic studies conducted by Bird and fellow HIMB researcher Rob Toonen show that ‘opihi populations are unique to each island. Larvae do not travel between islands, rather only along the coastline of each island.
The resource management implications are clear. “Each island needs to care for and sustain its own ‘opihi stocks to ensure their perpetuation,” Bird says. “If things do not change within our lifetimes, we could see ‘opihi become endangered or even go extinct.”
The ‘opihi monitoring project is rallying an ever-widening circle of support for the beleaguered shellfish — and with it, new hope for a revitalized future.
In 2007, Fielding brought together a diverse group of partners that includes the ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u Natural Area Reserve, Ala Kukui, the State Division of Aquatic Resources, Haleakalā National Park, Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology, Kahanu Gardens, Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission, Nā Māmo O Mu‘olea, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Their goal: to gather baseline data on the health and abundance of ‘opihi.
“Everyone saw the need to come up with a standardized way of collecting data to answer critical questions, ‘How are our ‘opihi doing?’ And, down the road, ‘How will we know if what we’re doing to manage ‘opihi is working or not?’” Fielding says.
Together, the partners developed a common monitoring method to gather data on ‘opihi populations over time. The partners are field-testing the monitoring method at three sites in East Maui, ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u Natural Area Reserve and the island of Kaho‘olawe. Monitoring is also being discussed for NOAA’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
According to Fielding, “This tool helps us work toward long-term abundance of ‘opihi available for harvesting.”
Dozens of natural resource workers and local community volunteers have been trained to help count the ‘opihi and record data twice a year. The method imposes strict safety protocols like working in teams and conducting transects only as weather and surf conditions permit.
Integrating Science and Traditional Knowledge
Already, the project is fostering a dynamic cross-fertilization of expertise among the diverse groups. “From the start,” says Fielding, “the whole spirit of this collaboration has been, ‘Let’s learn together. Let’s teach each other.’”
Bird and other scientists, for example, share what they learn through their research, while cultural practitioners share what they were taught by their kūpuna (elders) as well as what they experience in the ocean. “After all,” says Eharis, “we have our scientists, too.
Eharis and Pu are among those leading the charge in their community to raise awareness of the problems of overharvesting. Along with their deep lineal ties to the stretch of coastline they are trying to protect, both men are trained natural resource managers who work at nearby Haleakalā National Park.
When he walks down to the shoreline, Pu hears his ancestors “saying what they want and why we have to do it now.”
In earlier times, konohiki, or appointed stewards who possessed an intimate knowledge of the environment, judiciously managed the natural resources within ‘ahupua‘a, traditional land divisions that run from the mountains to the reefs. Seasonal and species bans were imposed as needed to maintain balance between human use and the health of the limited resources that sustained an island people.
Eharis says the wisdom of that conservative approach, “taking care of your own back yard to ensure enough for the future,” bears lessons for today.
“My family, my friends, we’re all guilty of over-harvesting at one time,” Eharis admits.“But you learn, can’t just take, take, take.” And the mindset of “picking in others’ back yards when your own runs out is a big problem nowadays.”
As much as Pu and Eharis love ‘opihi, they won’t love it to death. They have stopped bringing ‘opihi to parties, and gather only sparingly to consume at home — feeling compelled to let their ancestral shoreline “rest.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” Pu says. “We have no choice. If we want to have ‘opihi tomorrow, we need to care for them today.”