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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Guy Tamashiro of Tamashiro Market.

photos: elyse butler and matt mallams

Loved to Death

In the state Legislature, opihi have a friend in Sen. Clayton Hee, an advocate for Native Hawaiian cultural issues, including making sure there’s enough opihi in the ocean for families who want to pick them for their baby luau. Hee enjoys eating opihi himself, but not so much that he would strip every last limpet from the rocks. “The mentality now is, ‘Take ’em all, cuz if I don’t take ’em the next guy going take ‘em,’” Hee says. “We need to shift our thinking back to conservation for future generations.”

Every year for the past six years, Hee has introduced legislation that would toughen restrictions on opihi picking. Currently there are just two rules: a size limit (1.25 inches with shell, or .5 inches without shell), and the requirement that commercial opihi pickers have commercial fishing licenses. Hee’s latest measure would set bag limits, establish seasonal closures on the Neighbor Islands, and place a five-year moratorium on opihi harvesting on Oahu to give the island’s opihi stocks time to recharge.

Hee is amused when someone suggests that he has shown opihi-like determination in keeping the issue on the legislative agenda, but he does not wish to be compared to James “The Opihi” Wakatsuki. “Maybe I’m already an opihi,” he says, “but I hope I can be a little more flexible than that.”

The closest Hee has gotten to easing pressure on opihi through the law came in 2006, when his first opihi bill, which imposed an outright ban on the commercial sale of opihi, made it all the way to Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk. She stamped it with a veto, declaring it would create an opihi black market and that no analysis had been done to show that a ban was needed. The following year, the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii launched an initiative called The Opihi Partnership, which has brought together Hawaiian cultural practitioners, scientists, government agencies and other stakeholders to share information and gather baseline data on opihi populations at sites around the Hawaiian Islands. It’s an ongoing effort that’s basically counting opihi to monitor how they’re doing over time.

Meanwhile, although nobody denies that Oahu is an opihi wasteland, the health of Neighbor Island populations remains subject to debate. Tamashiro Market’s seafood manager, Guy Tamashiro, points to the opihi in his own fish freezer as evidence that opihi stocks on the Big Island, where his three suppliers reside, are doing just fine. “I pretty much have opihi 98 percent of the year,” he says. “The only time I don’t is when I screw up and don’t order enough. It’s not in short supply.”

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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