Clinging to Survival

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May-June 2015


Hawaiian opihi
PHOTO CAPTION: Mauians have traveled with scientists to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to study pristine ‘opihi populations. At right, a survey team heads to Mokupāpapa; above, performing transect surveys on Mokumanamana.

“‘Opihi is our lifestyle,” says Keahi Lind, a commercial fisherman and cattle rancher from the remote East Maui district of Kipahulu. “Used to be, when we enjoyed a day at the beach, always had plenty of ‘opihi, two or three a night for everybody.” 

He and others from the Kipahulu ‘Ohana — an elder council whose name contains the Hawaiian word for “family” — have driven the twisting belt road to meet here, at a concrete picnic table beside shining Hana Bay. It’s late afternoon. The sun is headed over the mountain for its usual day’s-end dazzle on the other side of the island, leaving the little round bay quiet and slowly darkening. A couple dogs are racing harmlessly around, five tourists are washing sand off their legs, and pickup trucks are parking under the trees. It’s pau hana — after work — time to hang out.

Hank Eharis is with us. “We live off the shoreline. That’s our backyard. That’s our icebox. As kids, we were not going to the store for a bag of chips. We went running to the seashore to pick a few ‘opihi.”Hank is a mature Hawaiian mountain man whose face creases easily into mirth and kindness. He works as resource manager for the National Park Service and typically spends days at a time in the wild upper forests. He has come to the bay to speak for Na Mamo o Mu‘olea — “the descendants of Mu‘olea” — a point of land along the East Maui coast. A registered nonprofit like Kipahulu ‘Ohana, Na Mamo o Mu‘olea is dedicated to the self-governance of a small community whose roots go deeper than recorded history.

“‘Opihi,” he says, “it’s the taste of the ocean. You take a couple off the rocks, add some limu [seaweed] — no can beat.” But lately the ‘opihi populations have crashed along East Maui’s shorelines, and the two communities have begun to take action, establishing no-harvest zones, patrolling those areas themselves, and learning scientific monitoring protocols to measure the vitality of this wild resource. In doing so, they have developed a model for bottom-up conservation practices, a model with broad implications: Don’t wait for the State to prevent the greedy grabbing of waning resources.

Outside of Hawai‘i this is hard to explain, all this fuss over a limpet — a saltwater cousin of the garden snail that lives where waves collide ceaselessly with shoreline boulders. But here in the Islands, people regard ‘opihi with a smile of affection and a certain gustatory lust. They are a gotta-have for any truly authentic lu‘au, the kind you throw for baby’s first birthday or your daughter’s wedding. In effect you are serving salty snail meat, but in fact you are presenting a symbol of pre-Contact Hawaiian diet, a fixture of the lauhala-mat cuisine known to former ruling chiefs. So you will pay $100 or even four times that for a gallon-size easy-seal bag of the critters. ‘Opihi pickers who range the shorelines with burlap sacks can earn thousands in a single raid. 

Hawaiian opihiAnd they can die, working the intertidal zone with their backs to the smashing waves. An ‘olelo no‘eau(Hawaiian proverb) states: He ia make ka ‘opihi: “The ‘opihi is a fish of death.” When waves strike, ‘opihigrip the stones with seventy pounds of pressure per square inch. Humans — not much suction there. So, in human terms, the ‘opihi is responsible for more marine deaths each year (one or two on average) than any other animal, including the shark. Of course, ‘opihi aren’t “responsible” for anything. They are just holding tight, like all of us, for survival.

Hawai‘i has three endemic species of these limpets, all in the genus Cellana. Other species are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific region, although no other place can claim three distinct kinds. Apparently the Hawaiian species are tastier than others, as these little mollusks are not much consumed elsewhere. (Japan has a limpet cult.) Ours have distinct names in Hawaiian and in science-ese, and they live near each other at three distinct levels of the intertidal zone.

‘Opihi are univalve gastropods. That means they have one big foot and a protective shell into which they can tuck all their tender parts. Their shells rise to a point, forming a wide cone. Apparently they stash salt water in this cone so that they can keep breathing when the waves subside. And they graze all day on microalgae, scurrying a few millimeters at a time here and there.

They figure large in traditional Hawaiian culture. The meat is one thing — popped right off the rocks and swallowed crunchy live, or grilled and served poke style. The shells are good little tools for peeling taro corms, and contribute mineral nutrients to farmers’ fields. You find the shells placed on ahu(shrines) from old days, and the revered native Hawaiian educator and cultural anthropologist Mary Kawena Pukui stated that some people consider them to be ‘aumakua, or ancestral spirits. These days, “‘opihi” is an obvious metaphor for anything clinging, including unwanted admirers and (especially) infants who refuse to be taken from their mothers’ embrace.

East Maui residents whose lives still align with the old ways of subsistence farming and fishing regard the ‘opihi as a staple. It has upset them in recent years to see supplies declining. In 2008 the boards of Kipahulu ‘Ohana (established 1995) and Na Mamo o Mu‘olea (2002) both recognized that ‘opihipopulations had dwindled, but they had no hard data to prove it. Nor did they have a model for effective response. So they began to look for allies, and they found some good ones.

The Nature Conservancy stepped up quickly via its Maui Marine Program director, Emily Fielding. Because she is adept with ‘opihi pickers, as well as marine biologists and government agencies, Fielding began organizing informal meetings and workshops. She brought together people who otherwise would never have met — and government people who needed to speak to each other. For example, the National Park manages 1,500 meters of ‘opihi-laden shoreline in Kipahulu, but its responsibility extends only to the sea, and the State takes over from there. ‘Opihi live right on that boundary. 

Hawaiian opihiScientists found themselves learning from the rooted residents, and have even taken several (Hank Eharis, for one) on research cruises to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument (Papahanaumokuakea) to help study ‘opihi populations in that wholly unharvested area. Best of all, the residents adopted a monitoring protocol to put hard numbers on their gut sense that ‘opihi are being taken with reckless disregard for the future. By doing methodical surveys, the residents can prove now that 2010 population levels shrank by as much as 50 or even 60 percent in the ensuing four years.

The problem is not with the ‘opihi,whose reproductive habits are fecund to say the least. Nor is it environmental degradation. The problem is humans. Says marine biologist Dr. Chris Bird, “Across Hawai‘i there is a tight relationship between human population size and decline in ‘opihi populations.” On O‘ahu, for example, where Bird earned his Ph.D. at the University  of Hawai‘i with a particular focus on ‘opihi, one species is probably extinct and the others are rare. (After he chose his research focus, he says, “I didn’t even see an ‘opihi for a year, until I went to other islands.”) He says that if you put the entire population of O‘ahu along the shoreline facing out to sea, each person would have just ten centimeters (four inches) of space for ‘opihi-picking. On Maui that number is one meter (about forty inches) and shrinking. It’s not hard to see where Maui is headed.

The State of Hawai‘i has refused to put bag limits on ‘opihi, so harvesting this wild resource is a free-for-all. But the collaborators of East Maui have established “rest areas” for at least three years while they continue to collect data. Residents are watching the shorelines, and they will come out with brochures and reasonable pleas to kokua, to join their efforts to let the populations rebound. 

Dr. Bird: “The collaboration has been an amazing experience for me. Local communities are stepping up and taking control of their own resources. This community-based management has stemmed from traditional Hawaiian knowledge — what you harvest today affects what you can harvest tomorrow.”

“It’s all about communication and community,” says Hank Eharis. “I got to regulate myself, too,” he adds ruefully. “I’ll admit to over-taking, before. But then we had ‘opihi on ‘opihi. How much ‘opihi did I eat this year? Maybe . . . three. Now the goal is to sustain our lifestyle. We could pound the place, but we’re not like that. The model comes from the Hawaiian kapu system and going back further. It’s always been the community’s work anyway. From the bottom up.”