Monday, July 15, 1996
Big demand for opihi means
few can be found
A recent ad in the newspaper said, "Fresh, frozen
opihi from Big Island. $189/gallon."
Wow! Where did anyone get so many opihi? Whenever I see
them, they're either too small to harvest or they're stuck to break-neck
rocks in pounding surf.
Only once did I see large opihi in accessible
abundance, and that was at La Perouse Pinnacles in French Frigate Shoals.
This atoll in Hawaii's northwest chain is part of a national wildlife
"These fat opihi are driving me crazy," my
snorkeling partner said after we spotted the big snails with the pointy
shells crowded along the pinnacles. "Do you think it's OK to eat just
one or two?"
"Better ask the refuge manager," I said.
"Sorry," the manager told him a moment later.
"Animals are protected here."
My friend, who relishes every kind of seafood
imaginable, was disappointed, but certainly saw the point. The
no-harvesting rule was, after all, the reason the opihi were ample here in
the first place.
OPIHI are snails that live on wave-swept rocks in
intertidal and shallow-water areas. Also called limpets, opihi shells
resemble Chinese straw hats. Such broad-based shells offer minimum water
resistance to the powerful blasts of water that come regularly from
The strong opihi shells also protect the animal when
clamped down on its rock home. And these snails can really hang on tight.
Unless you sneak up on these critters when they're relaxed, there's little
hope of prying them off with bare hands. One local T-shirt says it all:
"SUMO OPIHI - Takes a licking and keeps on sticking."
Those people who know how to pick opihi, however, get
an instant treat. Many eat these snails raw, popping the meat into their
mouths right at the beach. Because of this, it's common to see pearly
opihi shells lying empty around rocky beaches.
Opihi have been a popular food source in Hawaii for
centuries, mostly on windward sides of the islands. (The shells also made
useful tools.) Ancient refuse heaps show that opihi made up about 46
percent of the shell composition at windward sites. Leeward sites showed
about 5 percent opihi.
Opihi are more abundant on windward coasts because the
snails eat the limu (seaweed) that grows on wave-washed rocks.
Although limpets grow throughout the world, Hawaii's
opihi species are only found here. We have four kinds but only two are
commonly eaten: the yellow foot (alina'alina) and the black foot (maka'ia'uli).
Because the black foot is found higher on the shoreline than the yellow
foot, it was traditionally called the lazy man's opihi.
OPIHI are capable of spawning throughout the year, but
most often release eggs and sperm into the water from November to June,
when seawater is the coolest. After a few days in the ocean, the baby
opihi find and stick to a home rock. The snails spend their entire lives,
about a year, grazing that particular area.
Compared with the growth rates of limpets in other
parts of the world, opihi grow extremely rapidly. The snails reach sexual
maturity when the shell diameter is just under an inch, usually after a
The body weight continues to increase throughout the
animal's life. The longer an opihi is allowed to grow, the greater the
weight of its edible meat.
Opihi picking season is year round. Shells must be at
least 11/4 inches wide, or the meat a half inch wide, to legally harvest
them in Hawaii. Unfortunately, too few people have followed this rule,
making opihi relatively scarce today.
Those that are left are usually found in dangerous,
hard-to-reach places. Falling and drowning deaths of opihi pickers are all
too common in Hawaii news.