With political candidates like Mufi Hannemann vowing to bring about inter-island high-speed ferry service should he get elected governor, it’s fashionable to look back at the opposition to the Hawaii Superferry five or six years ago and deride it as nothing more than a bunch of pesky environmentalists. In fact, a lot of local residents on Maui opposed the auto ferry for reasons that had nothing to do with whether there had been enough environmental reviews. They opposed the Superferry because of tiny creatures like the ‘opihi.
The Hawaiian limpet, as it’s called, is a local delicacy. “When it comes to fresh Hawaiian seafood, nothing spends less time in transit than the opihi plucked off the rocks and slurped right out of the shell, wriggling tentacles and all,” David Thompson wrote in the November 2011 issue of Honolulu Magazine. “They are typically eaten raw, either plain or poke style, with limu and a dash of sea salt. They also go well on the grill, seasoned with shoyu and ginger perhaps, or a splash of Tabasco or, in a pinch, a spare packet of Taco Bell hot sauce.”
They’re also extremely difficult to get. Not only are their numbers declining in general, but they’re physically difficult to get a hold of. They clamp down on rocks along dangerous shorelines–indeed, as Honolulu Magazine pointed out, in the last few years far more people have drowned trying to get ‘opihi than have been killed by sharks.
Superferry opponents were worried about what Oahu residents–who long ago decimated their local ‘opihi gounds–would do if they could drive to Maui. As this 2008 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article makes clear, their fears were well grounded: in the first two weeks of August 2008, state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials found Superferry passengers trying to take 63 pounds of ‘opihi back to Oahu.
For the last six years, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been studying marine life in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands)–including the ‘opihi.
“‘Opihi, a prized food item in Hawai‘i, is in serious decline in the main Hawaiian Islands,” stated a July 2 news release from NOAA. “Scientists are trying to better understand spawning patterns, gene flow and the rate of evolution of the three ‘opihi species endemic to Hawai‘i in order to conserve the species and manage shorelines near populated areas.”
The news release also details a surprising find: apparent hybridization between the yellowfoot and blackfoot ‘opihi on the island of Mokumanamana.
“At times we could not tell the difference between the two,” said Dr. Christopher Bird, a researcher with Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, in the news release. “By taking a deeper look into the genes of these two species, it’s apparent that yellowfoot ‘opihi living lower on the shorelines and blackfoot ‘opihi living higher on the shorelines are cross-breeding. Hybridization of the two species could make ‘opihi more resilient to the effects of climate change.”
And that would be a good thing, assuming Bird’s use of the word “could” is warranted.
Visit Papahanaumokuakea.gov for more information.
Photo of Mokumanamana: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Yellowfoot ‘opihi: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons