The Opihi Shellfish Story

What’s going on underneath those shells? From gastronomy to conservation to evolutionary biology, we pry the secrets out of these little limpets.


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The Price of Opihi—More Money for Fewer Shellfish: Until recently, the market price of opihi has skyrocketed, while the annual harvest has declined.

infographic: kiki karpus, source: hawaii state dlnr

On the palate, opihi are rubbery yet crunchy. They taste like the ocean, only richer, but are an acquired taste. Tourists don’t come to Waikiki with opihi on their must-try list, and that’s just as well, since opihi are already too popular among locals for their own good.


Low tide, calm seas and yellowfoot aplenty — even under these ideal conditions, opihi picking carries risks.

photo: josh fletcher

While the Neighbor Islands still have some healthy opihi habitat, Oahu’s ‘pihi grounds have been hammered so hard for so long by so many  pickers that you’re more likely to find a pair of opihi-shell hoop earrings in a hotel gift shop than you are to find a legally pickable opihi on a rock in Honolulu County. There are efforts afoot to better manage the fishery, but, in the meantime, opihi on Oahu are essentially a shellfish that’s been loved to death.

Hawaii’s Deadliest Catch

If you have ever seen opihi on their home turf, they probably appeared to be stuck in place, like barnacles. Actually, they creep slowly across the rocks as they graze on algae, like so many tiny cows in a field. It’s when opihi are feeding that opihi pickers get their shot at popping them loose with their butter knives or paint scrapers. If the picker blows the first attempt, though, it’s game over. An alarmed opihi clamps down on its rock so tightly not even the most monstrous surf can knock it off. This attachment is sometimes equated with stubborness. The former state legislator James Wakatsuki, Speaker of the House in the 1970s, was nicknamed “The Opihi” because once he took a position on an issue he would not budge, no matter what.

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