John Lind in the lo‘ikalo, Kipahulu, Maui
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that commercial ‘opihi landings for all species in the Islands totaled 8,807 pounds in 2004—though, of course, this is what was reported, and virtually everyone agrees that the actual harvest is much higher. The average price at local fish markets is roughly $30 per pound for shelled ‘opihi.
On Moloka‘i, the Dudoits measure their catch by the gallon. A gallon of shelled ‘opihi, which is equivalent to about eight pounds, can feed about 100 people. Lu‘au on Moloka‘i are often attended by several hundred people, and many parties order six gallons or more. The $250-per-gallon price goes up according to availability—which itself is a function of accessibility, determined by ocean conditions. According to Robin, some people are willing to pay $500 a gallon.
“On Moloka‘i, without ‘opihi, it’s not a lu‘au,” he says. “Why is it so expensive? Gas is expensive … and who’s willing to risk their lives?”
Not just the men. Noelani Josselin’s great grandmother grew up in Kaupo near Hana, Maui, where she was known as the resident ‘opihi picker. Noelani’s grandmother, by whom she was raised, inherited that role.
“It’s always been a family affair,” Noelani says. “‘Opihi represent our Hawaiian culture, not only as a food source but also as an icon. Babies who cling to their moms are lovingly called ‘opihis. Close-knit families are likened to groups of ‘opihi—how they usually cluster on rocks. In our family, we call them ‘Ohana Pa‘a, or a family that sticks together.”
Listening to Noelani describe the various kinds of ‘opihi with such enthusiasm, it’s clear that tradition made her a connoisseur. “When the ‘opihi is found near freshwater, it has a more gummy texture, because the salt in the water is more diluted. It doesn’t have that firm grip muscle,” she says. “Where there’s no freshwater coming into the ocean, it’s nice and crunchy with a firm texture—not crunchy like crackly, but intact like a scallop with flesh that falls apart when you bite into it. Personally, I like when there’s a lot of fat in it.”
Noelani has scouted out coastlines in Malaysia, the Philippines and Borneo for ‘opihi, looking for reminders of home as she travels the world. Flavor, she says, also depends on the type of rock an ‘opihi grows on. “It absorbs the characteristics of mineral. Sandstone gives a chalky flavor. Lava rock and basalt in Hawai‘i makes for a nice, clean-tasting ‘opihi.”
During a trip to the west coast of Ireland in 2004, Noelani was walking along the picturesque Kerry coastline at high tide when she ran across a bunch of ‘opihi shells. When the tide receded, there they were, glistening on the rocks. She decided to sample one—“stick in your thumb and pop it out,” she says of her technique—and found it tasted like a cross between baby abalone, mussel and oyster. “I can’t say it tastes the same as local ‘opihi—nothing’s the same as ‘opihi from Hawai‘i—but I think it’s a superior alternative.”
It was good enough, and the unmet demand in Hawai‘i high enough, that Noelani and her business partner Patrick Murphy decided to make a business of importing the Irish ‘opihi. Noelani says the Irish don’t typically eat ‘opihi, but she’s run into gypsies who boil it, the same way they do in the Philippines. “I asked them, ‘Have you ever thought about adding bits of ginger, tomato and onion?’ They looked at me kind of strange.”
Kıpahulu is a sweeping, fertile swath of hillside that overlooks the sea just beyond where the Hana Highway meanders to ‘Ohe‘o Gulch in East Maui. I arrive on master fisherman John Lind’s fifty-sixth birthday. He’s relaxing on a lawn chair beside his lo‘i, encircled by family and friends. All are members of the Kıpahulu ‘Ohana, a group of Native Hawaiians who have reestablished a traditional way of life here, on an ahupua‘a that includes part of Haleakala National Park. ‘Opihi is one of the region’s most precious resources but, as with Wailau, it is always
discussed as part of a larger system.
“The lo‘i is a holding pen for baby ‘opae,” Uncle John explains. “June, July, they all hatch and come up the stream. It’s all connected—all the eggs go down to the ocean, come out in the brackish water, hatch and all those guys come marching up every year.” He adds that crumbled ‘opihi shells contain nutrients that are important for farming, serving as an organic fertilizer. The group chimes in with other uses for the pearly-bottomed ‘opihi shells: Scrapers for extracting coconut flesh to make haupia and kulolo, bowls for dipping sauce or salt, handy tools for peeling or scooping. One joker suggests they make good bras; somebody else says that ‘opihi are also an aphrodisiac, noting John’s nine children as evidence.
John’s brother Terry is on the Haleakala National Park staff, and over the course of their lives both he and John have explored the Kıpahulu ahupua‘a from top to bottom. “You’ll find caves, lava tubes way up in the top of the mountain. You go way inside, you’ll find big ‘opihi shells, honu (turtle) shells…things our ancestors lived on. And you know it’s sacred for them to carry them all the way up there and put ‘em inside a cave in the middle of the crater.
“The ‘opihi is just like a Hawaiian,” he continues, alluding to how ardently Hawaiians cling to their culture.
Poaching for commercial gain is a big problem in East Maui, where ‘opihi can still be harvested all year. A group called the Eastside Hui, headed by Kema Kanakaoli, was formed to protect the region’s resources. During a cultural festival in Hana, Kema told a story about the challenges they face: A man from Kahului had come out to the Hana coast to pick ‘opihi with his son, and Kema caught them taking undersized shells. The man complained that there were only “small kine” to be found. Kema responded there were only “small kine” because guys like them were coming over and cleaning out the stocks.
“The man’s wife said, ‘What, you guys own the whole coastline?’ I told him, ‘No, but we regulate the resource.’” Kema later discovered that the man was selling his catch to Foodland.
“Maybe they think they get the right,” he continued. “But they’re not practicing the responsibility—aloha ‘aina, love the land. The ‘aina is what we eat.”
This echoes something John Lind had told me earlier, about what happens when resources are abused. “You got places like Nanakuli, Wai‘anae—no more ‘opihi already, so they’re turning to fast food—McDonalds, Burger King. They could raise ‘opihi over there. We can take the strong mothers and move ‘em to the weak bays. If you take care of the ‘aina, it will take care of you.” HH