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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Blackfoot and yellowfoot opihi on the rocks.

photos: elyse butler and matt mallams

The intense opihi-rock connection is also equated with the bond between mother and child, which sheds light on why opihi are in such demand at baby luau, the celebration of a child’s first birthday. Babies and clingy keiki in Hawaii are sometimes called “little opihi,” as in “Mommy’s little opihi needs to let go now so mommy can have her arms back.” Opihi also tend to cluster together with other opihi, which reminds people of tightly knit families, and enhances opihi’s cuteness a lot.


Researcher Chris Bird is unraveling the secrets of opihi DNA, but first he has to pick them.

This cuteness, however, belies a dark side. Opihi are deadly. The Hawaiian saying, He ia make ka opihi, the opihi is the fish of death, sums it up well. It’s not because of anything opihi do, it’s because of where they live, along dangerous shores. A state Department of Health review of drowning deaths from 1993 through 1997 found nine people drowned while picking opihi. Between 1999 and 2009, on the Big Island alone, at least 13 opihi pickers died in drownings, falls from cliffs or, in one case, after getting stuffed into a blowhole by waves, according to news stories in the Hilo Tribune-Herald. With grim numbers like these, opihi are deadlier than sharks, box jellyfish or any other creature living in Hawaiian waters.

Brian Calantoc of Hilo is one of a handful of people on the Big Island, where most of the opihi sold in Honolulu come from, who pick opihi for a living. He spends several days a week working opihi spots around the island. He pays $50 a year for a commercial fishing license so he can sell his catch to markets, and he takes orders through word-of-mouth contacts and via Craigslist, where he currently charges $200 for a one-gallon mayo jar of opihi, cleaned and shelled.

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,November

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