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Against the current, Hawaii’s ‘o‘opu navigate turbulent waters to recovery

KA MO‘OLELO MOANA

The endemic ‘o‘opu hi‘u kole (‘alamo‘o) is distinguished from Hawaii’s other goby species by their incredible ability to scale vertical waterfalls. -- www.marinelifephotography.com / KEOKI STENDER photo

In Central Maui, the winds of Kili’o’opu o Waihe’e quietly sweep through the flora and fauna of the sculpted ridgelines and lush valleys. The storied waters that carve through Waihee Valley are one of several nurturing streams that collectively form Na Wai ‘Eha, The Four Great Waters of Waikapu, Wailuku, Waihee and Waiehu. Stemming from the windward slopes of the West Maui Mountains to the sea, these waters are the ancient lifeblood of Central Maui.

Life is tucked away among river stones and rocky overhangs of Na Wai ‘Eha. Shrimp, fish and snails are found here, including the beloved stream-dwelling gobies known as ‘o’opu. Throughout the Hawaiian Islands, five endemic ‘o’opu species exist including ‘o’opu hi’u kole (‘alamo’o), ‘o’opu nopili, ‘o’opu naniha, ‘o’opu ‘akupa (‘okuhe), and ‘o’opu nakea, the largest and most common species. These endemic species are found only in Hawaii and nowhere else in the world.

Adapting to the islands’ mystifying and often treacherous landscapes, the ‘o’opu are generally revered as accomplished climbers and evolutionary marvels. Some species embark on one of Hawaii’s greatest migrations, traversing from the ocean to upstream and ascending the islands’ tallest waterfalls. Excluding the ‘o’opu ‘akupa, the ‘o’opu’s pelvic fins have evolved and fused into a powerful suction disc that is used to hold fast against strong currents of healthy streams and cascading waterfalls. Of the greatest climbers, the ‘o’opu hi’u kole is known to climb waterfalls towering up to 1,000 feet in height. ‘O’opu species that aren’t equipped with the ability to climb are often found in the mid to lower regions of streams.

‘O’opu are amphidromous, spending their lives both in the saltwater and freshwater. They migrate to and from the sea, passing stream mouths twice in their lifetime. Female ‘o’opu lay their eggs upstream until hatchlings are carried back down to the ocean as larvae. As juveniles, they begin their journey back to land seeking the safe haven of the streams. To return to their pristine nesting grounds above sea level, some scale waterfalls, inch by inch, to bring forth the next generation of ‘o’opu.

Just as the ocean-dwelling moi were favored as a food resource by the Hawaiian ruling class of ali’i, so were the ‘o’opu. Typically, ‘o’opu were steamed in ti leaf and reserved exclusively for royalty. The name of the wind that passes through Waihee, Kili’o’opu, loosely translates as the wind that carries the scent of ‘o’opu. It was believed that the wind would carry the smell of ‘o’opu being cooked over a fire through the valley, and if you were cooking ‘o’opu without the ali’i’s permission, consequences were severe — including death.

In modern Hawaii, ‘o’opu are navigating through turbulent waters on the path to recovery from population decline. Streams that once flowed with regularity to the ocean, like those of Na Wai ‘Eha, have dwindled drastically due to water diversion and channelization for commercial agriculture, hospitality and other developments. ‘O’opu and many other freshwater aquatic animals perish in dried-up streambeds caused by man-made diversions and structures.

The cultural and ecological importance of wai (freshwater), kai (saltwater) and where the two realms meet have been hindered by anthropogenic pressures. In many areas, the connection between streams and the ocean, the lifeline for ‘o’opu, has been severed. The restoration of Maui’s freshwater flows, from West to East Maui, would spell hope for one of Hawaii’s most iconic freshwater fish species and those who depend on the great waters of Maui.

* Evan Pascual is the marketing and public relations coordinator at Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.