The Opihi Ohana

A partnership has been created to study opihi and better manage the population.

Surveyors on East Maui collect data on opihi.

Photo: Emily Fielding

Opihi are getting some extra attention these days. An ongoing program initiated by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Hawaii has created a coalition of community members, scientists, nonprofits and state and federal resource managers to look after the little limpets.

The project, known as the Opihi Monitoring Partnership (OMP), came into being in 2008 with a gathering of a dozen people on Kahoolawe. “There were lots of questions and concerns about opihi,” says Emily Fielding, TNC’s Maui marine program coordinator and the convener of the group. Some partners wondered how to judge if their conservation efforts were paying off.  Others, who use opihi as a food source, they wanted to better understand the population. After a second meeting in Hāna, Maui, just a few months later, the group came up with a monitoring plan that would meet everyone’s needs. “The common goal is to understand opihi well enough to manage it, and ensure that there are opihi for present and future generations,” explains Fielding.

Photo: Bob Bangerter

Opihi, limpets with a cone-like shell, have been overharvested for more than a century. In 1900, roughly 150,000 pounds of opihi were harvested for commercial sale in Hawaii. By 1944, opihi sales were down to 13,000 pounds. “The fishery had crashed,” says Dr. Chris Bird, a marine ecologist with The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). Bird explains that the value of opihi is increasing due to the fact they’re getting harder and harder to find. In 2009, opihi were the fifth most expensive seafood harvested in Hawaiian waters, at $6.80 per pound wholesale, according to NOAA and the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources.

To collect opihi data, surveyors are trained to gather the same information, in the same manner, at their designated site at least once every year. The information is basic, such as how many opihi are in the area and which species are present. Since opihi monitoring can be just as dangerous as opihi picking, surveying must be done in teams, and they must use protective gear.

Initially, there were four sites in the network: two on Maui, one on Kahoolawe, and another in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Since then, three additional sites have been added, including Kalaupapa on Molokai and one on the Big Island.
The specific names of the sites remain anonymous, says Fielding, to avoid any undue attention to the areas. To keep things confidential, all data is sent to HIMB for analysis.

The exchange of information—both traditional knowledge and scientific data—is  proving invaluable. Bird says, “As a scientist, it’s very rewarding to work with people who have been picking throughout their entire lives. I learn a lot from them about opihi, and even about species that I didn’t know existed.” Hank Eharis, a Hāna resident who grew up harvesting opihi, says, “The benefit is that we can bring back values from the past and teach them to the newer generation. We’ve seen the mistakes of harvesting, and it’s time to speak up.”

Opihi Facts

Hawaii has three endemic species of opihi and each live in different sections along the rocky intertidal zone. They’re also very specific about what they like—and what they don’t.

Opihi Makaiauli

(Cellana exarata) want to be splashed, and don’t mind being dry between tides. The low ribs of their shells are dark and their troughs light. They grow to about two inches across.


Opihi Alinalina

(Cellana sandwichensis) crave constant splash or surge and can’t tolerate drying out for long periods. Their shells grow to about 2 and a half inches across and have a scalloped edge that was used by Hawaiians for shredding coconut meat.


Opihi Koele

(Cellana talcosa) are sometimes submerged and can live in depths of up to 10 feet. Koele are the largest of Hawaiian opihi, growing up to four inches across. Their shells are smooth and thick with a low profile.