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Hawai’i’s Gold: Hard to Find & Dangerous to Harvest

Opihi Shells

Article submitted by Quinn Nelson.

Growing up in Hawaii, there are a few songs that are a common sing-a-long style, that easily get stuck on loop in one’s head. One of those songs is “’Opihi Man” by Ka’au Crater Boys, with the famous line “’Opihi man in the sun, ‘Opihi man grab your bag and RUN!” Now you’re singing along, you’re welcome. To further explain the meaning behind this song, there needs to be an explanation of what an ‘Opihi is and why people run.

What Exactly IS An 'Opihi?

An ‘Opihi is a marine gastropod mollusk, an edible true limpet. ‘Opihi are significant in
Hawaii as they are used for food, jewelry, and even tools. They are harvested and sold by the gallon with considerable prices. A picker can make up to $200-$250 per gallon, while in high demand and can even go up to $400 per gallon. While that can make anyone consider heading out to the rocks to search for these pricey sea creatures, there is considerable risk involved, and the pay-off may be more than what you bargained for.

Opihi Men in the Sun

Opihi Man, Grab Your Bag & Run!!

Why is anyone running? ‘Opihi are seen as a staple at graduation parties and baby’s first birthday luaus, they are expensive, and people love to eat them. However, it has been called “the fish of death”, and for good reason. The delicacy is found on shorelines stuck on the rocks, usually where large waves come crashing in- creating less than desirable collecting conditions. To safely pick ‘Opihi, one needs to be completely aware of surroundings and ocean conditions at all times. Slippery, wet rocks and high surf crashing into rocks could mean considerable danger for any experienced picker. The ocean exists in a state of swells and if a large swell comes in without warning, a picker could be swept off the rocks and into the ocean. Too often, we hear about missing people, who were taken by the ocean while picking ‘Opihi. 

Now the line “’Opihi man grab your bag and RUN!” makes a bit more sense.

Legislative Action of 2012

In 2012, a bill was considered to further restrict harvesting but as of now, there is no limit to the time of year ‘Opihi can be harvested. However, they must be at least 1 ¼ inches in the longest dimension or the meat must be at least a half inch in length to be harvested legally in Hawaii.

While delicious, the current reality is that ‘Opihi are significantly smaller and harder to find than in the past. Overfished, overpriced, and continually unregulated in Hawai’i could mean we may see less and less of this delicacy. Let’s look forward to seeing safety measures and conservation laws implemented so our future generations can enjoy this local favorite.

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