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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.


(page 7 of 7)

Harry Ako from UH Manoa.

photos: elyse butler and matt mallams

“Opihi love nori,” Ako says. “That was a breakthrough.”

Ako’s next step is to get his test subjects to spawn. Overall, he thinks commercially viable opihi farming is about five years away.

Farming is not the only potential way of relieving pressure on wild stocks while still meeting consumer demand. There’s also the Irish alternative.

In 2003, a Kauai surfer named Patrick Murphy was in Ireland on a combination journey-of-discovery-to-the-family-homeland and surf safari. He paddled out at high tide to surf a point break in County Kerry, surfed for several hours as the extreme tide dropped several feet, then walked back in over the bare reef, where he discovered the biggest opihi he had ever seen.

OK, strictly speaking, they weren’t opihi. They were North Atlantic limpets, opihi’s Celtic cousins. You might think of them as the Irish Opihi. In any case, Murphy swears they taste just like primo Hawaiian yellowfoot. Fast forward to the present, and Murphy now lives in a beach town in Scotland, where he runs a Web-based limpet export business, the Emerald Island Opihi Co. He hasn’t exactly been swamped with orders from Hawaii, though. “Almost all of my sales have been to Hawaiians who’ve moved to the Mainland,” he says.

Murphy has no competition among other pickers, since the Scottish do not care for limpets, and the Irish, who were forced to eat them during the Great Famine, flat out hate them. “I’ve gotten some strange looks,” he says.

Origin of a Species

According to recently published research by Chris Bird, the biologist who’s been decoding opihi DNA, opihi’s closest relatives are actually Asian.

Imagine a Japanese rock covered with limpets and entangled in the roots of a fallen tree adrift at sea. Imagine that tree washing up on a black sand beach on Kauai, 5 million years ago, when Kauai was young and had black sand beaches. Nobody knows how the first limpets came to Hawaii, but that’s one possible scenario. Bird has shown that all three species of Hawaiian opihi descended from Japanese limpets that colonized the archipelago between 3.4 million and 7.2 million years ago.

This finding has made a splash in the world of evolutionary biology because it’s the first time that “adaptive radiation,” where multiple species evolve from a single ancestral species, has been seen in Hawaiian waters. The conventional thinking has been that Hawaii was an end-of-the-evolutionary-line for marine organisms. Each ancestral fish, mollusk, algae or whatnot that somehow found its way to Hawaii and evolved into a new species stopped there. Bird’s opihi research has shown this isn’t so, that one aquatic species can become many, and Hawaiian waters are not an evolutionary dead end.

What does this mean for the average, everyday opihi lover?

 “The average, everyday opihi lover already knew opihi were special,” Bird says. “This is not going to change the way they taste or how much people want to eat them. It’s just adding new information that makes them a little bit more of a Hawaiian treasure than they already are.”

Fast Facts:

Opihi spend their larval youths floating freely in the ocean. They can survive as larvae for as long as 18 days, but after two days or so they start looking for a rock to settle on. Researchers at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology have determined that the larvae do travel interisland. Each island has its own opihi population.

David Thompson is a freelance journalist who has written for HONOLULU on subjects ranging from donkeys to vog to dining tours.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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