Gobbling gobies

W. Maui residents concerned about overfishing of the endemic delicacy

Oopu, or Hawaiian gobies, are shown after being taken recently from Kahoma Stream in West Maui. Community members are concerned about the overharvesting of the native fish. -- KEKAI KEAHI photo

Kekai Keahi and other West Maui community members are concerned about the recent overfishing of the native oopu, or Hawaiian gobies, that have been coming down West Maui streams after heavy rains brought by the remnants of Hurricane Lane.

Keahi estimates that in about a week, at least 1,000 of the mainly endemic freshwater gobies, many pregnant or very young, have been snatched up from the Kahoma and Kahaha streams that flow south of Panda Express and Burger King along Keawe Street, then down past Longs to the shoreline in Lahaina.

There are no rules restricting the number of oopu that may be gathered, but people are prohibited from gathering with gill, draw, drag, cross or seine nets. Oopu caught in the wild may not be sold, although there have been no active violations for illegal oopu sales, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The department is investigating reports of net-gathering violations.

Keahi said he hopes people would refrain from taking more than they need and would leave young and pregnant fish in the streams for the health of the species.

Oopu are seen recently hiding alongside rocks in Kahoma Stream in West Maui. -- DLNR photo

Keahi, family members and others have worked for years to have diverted water returned to West Maui streams. And now, more than five years since the water’s return, they are seeing the return of native species such as the oopu. Keahi is part of Ka Malu O Kahalawai, a nonprofit that has worked to restore mauka-to-makai streams.

The restoration was important to oopu. The life cycle of the fish carries them downstream to the ocean as newly hatched larvae, and they return from the ocean to freshwater streams as juveniles.

Keahi supports fishing but opposes overfishing.

“We always knew there may be in the future situations (in which) people start overharvesting and not taking care of our resources,” he said.

Keahi said he and others spoke with and educated people who were gathering oopu last week. Some people were spoken to multiple times. But Keahi said a day after speaking to the gatherers, they were back gathering hundreds of oopu. Some of them have told him the gobies are food for their families, but Keahi speculates that they gobies are being sold at market because the take exceeds subsistence consumption.

He called it a “crucial time” for the gobies. Females are pregnant and are prepared to lay eggs.

In an email, the DLNR reported that state officials have spoken “with a number of complainants and are following up” on the matter regarding the gathering at Kahoma Stream.

The department said that “as with any species, pono fishing means to only take what you need.”

It noted that nets don’t distinguish between the taking of male and female fish.

The department said pregnant females are larger and have round bellies.

Keahi said he and others aim to cooperate with the state DLNR to possibly implement oopu regulations in West Maui, only because what people decide in West Maui may not be good for other communities elsewhere on the island. He said he wants the community to come together to decide what is best for the West Maui oopu.

Keahi said he also hopes to speak to county officials to see if educational signs can be put up to discourage people from taking more than they need.

As a youngster, Keahi said he and his family ate oopu. He compared its taste to butter fish.

“It’s really oily and fatty because of the cold water. It’s good,” Keahi said.

Keeping the oopu alive helps maintain the ecosystem, and it can serve as a food source, he added.

DLNR aquatic biologist Skippy Hau said recent heavy rains have brought the oopu down from upstream, making them abundant for the time being.

There are five types of oopu in the Kahoma Stream, Hau said. The most abundant is the oopu nakea, which are bigger gobies, he said.

The other types of oopu are: oopu alamo, oopu nopili, oopu naniha and oopu akupa. Some are herbivores, and some are omnivores. The oopu nakea is the only one out of the five that can be found in other Pacific Islands. The rest are only found in Hawaii, according to the DLNR.

The oopu sizes vary, depending on the species, but the largest can grow as long as 14 inches, according to the DLNR. Smaller oopu range from 5 to 7 inches long.

Hau said the oopu lay their eggs on rocks and that stream restoration is important because stream diversions prevent the newly hatched larvae from reaching the ocean, and juveniles cannot return up the streams.

Years ago, with stream flows running mauka to makai, or from the mountains to the ocean, taro patches harbored the oopu, Hau said.

He said he has heard stories from Hawaiian families that they used to let children run in the taro patch, which would stir up the mud in the water. With this, the oopu would appear, and they could be caught by hand.

Now, at night, people shine flashlights, and the gobies have a “deer in the headlights” effect, remaining still. Then people can easily grab the gobies.

Keahi was alerted to people catching gobies last week because someone saw people shining flashlights in one of the canals in the early-morning hours.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.