‘Opihi treasured as a cultural delicacy

KA MO‘OLELO MOANA

The main Hawaiian Islands are home to three endemic ‘opihi species: ‘opihi makaiauli (black foot), ‘opihi ‘alinalina (yellow foot) and ‘opihi ko‘ele (giant). -- LILY SOLANO photo

‘Opihi picking is a dangerous dance between the rocks and surging sea. Within seconds, the horizon disappears as a wave crashes against the rocks with a thundering force. The eruption of seawater engulfs the shoreline with a fury of white water. As the chaos subsides, a small window of safety opens as a drenched figure emerges from the receding water. Before the next wave hits, the fisherman quickly pries away at Hawaii’s deadliest catch — the ‘opihi. “He i’a make ka ‘opihi,” the fish of death.

But ‘opihi are far from anything dangerous. They are harmless, algae-grazing limpets that cling to the rocks of Hawaii’s coastlines. Protected by their conical shell and ability to hold fast, ‘opihi endure the immense power of waves pummeling against them. The “fish of death” alludes to the dangers that Hawaii’s fishermen face to brave the islands’ most treacherous coastlines to harvest ‘opihi. To the ‘opihi picker, the risks are worth bringing home a local delicacy and continuing a tradition that is deeply rooted in Hawaii’s culture.

Coined as “Hawaiian Gold,” ‘opihi are a treasured pupu (appetizer) in Hawaii and arguably the most desirable delicacy from the islands. In a culture that embodies the spirit of selflessness and sharing, it’s not uncommon for a relative or friend to pick ‘opihi for celebrations like birthdays and graduation parties. Knowing the risks involved in harvesting ‘opihi, the gift of these limpets is received with esteemed gratitude.

Beyond the dinner table, ‘opihi is integrated into Hawaii’s society. Music, like the Ka’au Crater Boys’ popular ” ‘Opihi Man” song, commemorates ‘opihi picking. Parents refer to their infants as ‘opihi for their unwillingness to leave their embrace. Old shells are turned into jewelry. ‘Opihi was a staple of pre-contact Hawaiian diet and their shells used as scraping tools. It’s also a part of the Kumulipo (creation chant) — “Hanau ka Makai-auli, o ka ‘Opihi kana keiki, puka,” born was the big limpet, his child the small limpet came forth.

‘Opihi represents the simplicity of Hawaii living. Plucked off the rocks with nothing more than a butter knife, ‘opihi is consumed raw or pulehu (grilled) over a fire served with your favorite sauce — like shoyu and chili pepper water. Eating ‘opihi is an acquired taste and not for everyone. You won’t find it on the menu at restaurants. But those who eat ‘opihi can attest that it tastes like the ocean, and for many it’s a nostalgic vessel to the golden years of Hawaii.

The love for ‘opihi has had inadvertent effects. ‘Opihi populations have declined over the past century driven by increasing demand and harvests. A once bountiful resource is becoming harder to find and pushing ‘opihi pickers into more remote and dangerous coastlines. While fishery regulations exist, community-based management programs have begun to take form.

In East Maui, the establishment of ‘Opihi Rest Areas returns to Hawaii’s traditional management practice of creating resting areas for population recovery. The Kipahulu ‘Ohana and Na Mamo O Mu’olea created voluntary “no-take” zones to give ‘opihi a chance to rebound and repopulate shorelines. Working with scientists, nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy and local government, this collaborative effort includes educational outreach and monitoring to improve management policies. The coalition between Hawaiian stewards and the monitoring protocols of scientists is creating a model that spells hope for the future of ‘opihi.

The ‘opihi is one of many fibers that construct Hawaii’s cultural and social identity. It connects people with friends, families and the ocean. While the ‘opihi faces an uphill road to recovery, its story has always been one of endurance, and ‘opihi will do what they do best — cling on for survival.

* 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.