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.


Published:

(page 6 of 7)


They gave their lives for science—dried opihi in the UH lab of Harry Ako, who says commercially viable opihi farming is five years away.

photos: elyse butler and matt mallams

If there’s an opihi problem, Tamashiro says, it’s with people who try to sell opihi without a license. Every year, he says, he gets dozens of phone calls that go like this:

“Eh, you like buy opihi?” the callers ask.

“You get commercial fishing license?” Tamashiro says.

“Nope,” they say.

“I cannot buy if you don’t have commercial fishing license,” he says.

 “Oh,” they say. “So you like buy opihi?"

Down on the Opihi Farm

Because of their ability to transform algae directly into protein, and because of a growth rate that takes them from free floating larvae to full-grown limpet in just a few months, opihi have great aquaculture potential, which could someday relieve pressure on the wild population. Researchers have worked on the issue since the 1970s, but the closest supermarkets have gotten to carrying farm-raised opihi came in the 1990s, when Dale Sarver, a Ph.D. marine ecologist and aquacultural entrepreneur, spawned and raised opihi in Kona. Although he demonstrated that it’s technically possible, he couldn’t make it profitable. “It was so labor intensive we were making only about eight cents apiece off the opihi,” he says.

The advancement of opihi aquaculture is currently centered in the biochemistry lab of Harry Ako at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. One of the big questions Ako has looked at is what to feed opihi. Their favorite food is the brown scuzz that grows naturally inside of a seawater tank left in the sun, Ako says. But commercial opihi farmers will want a more reliable feed source than brown scuzz that just appears all by itself. Ako tested a variety of marine protein meals and soy meals on the opihi in his lab, and the opihi weren’t crazy about any of them. Then Ako put double-stick tape on some nori, the dried sheets of seaweed used for sushi, stuck it on the opihi tank wall, and—Eureka!

Subscribe to Honolulu