“The Conservancy is supporting community efforts to restore declining populations of ‘opihi, a native mollusk.”
Ancient Hawaiians sustainably harvested ‘opihi, a small, cone-shaped limpet that clings to rocks on island shorelines. Unique to Hawai‘i, ‘opihi are a popular island delicacy and play a key role in the marine ecosystem, keeping shoreline algae growth in check.
But today, ‘opihi are visibly sparse. Their numbers have severely declined due to local demand, overharvesting and improper harvesting techniques. Not surprisingly, their dwindling numbers have increased their value. In 2009, ‘opihi were the fifth most expensive seafood harvested in Hawaiian waters, at $6.80 per pound wholesale, according to NOAA and the State Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR).
In 2008, The Nature Conservancy brought together a diverse group of partners, including Hawaiian cultural practitioners, scientists, local communities, resource managers and government agencies, in a shared quest to gather baseline data on ‘opihi populations at four sites: two on Maui, one on the island of Kaho‘olawe, and another in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Today, the project has expanded to include sites on Moloka‘i and the island of Hawai‘i.
Using a standardized survey method developed in collaboration with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, DAR and other partners, dozens of natural resource workers and community volunteers have been trained to help count ‘opihi populations and record data annually. Teams document the location, number, species, and size of ‘opihi, along with the algal composition.
Conducting these surveys allows participating communities and agencies to compare and evaluate the data across sites and document change. The process also encourages discussion about the status of the resource and assists in management decision making. The goal is to understand ‘opihi well enough to manage it, and ensure that there are ‘opihi for present and future generations.
The project is the first to integrate traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science to better understand and enhance ‘opihi populations — information that will benefit stewardship efforts and marine ecosystem health at these sites and beyond.