Native Hawaiian Leads Research Effort on Valuable Traditional Hawaiian Food Source

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently highlighted a project supported by the Pacific Islands CASC’s Manager Climate Corps program in which researchers are studying the effects of sea level rise on native shellfish populations. 

Read the original story by the USFWS here and view the accompanying podcast episode here.  

Left image: Close up of two white circular shells; Right image: white shells adhere to cliffs above waves

ʻOpihi shells (left) and groups of ʻopihi clinging to coastal cliffs.

(Credit: A. LaValle, NPS. Public domain.)

Although small in stature, the humble ‘opihi is one of the most culturally, economically, and environmentally important coastal resources in Hawai’i. The squat limpet, native to Hawai’i, has long been a major source of shellfish consumption across the islands and is a central figure in Hawaiian culture. Yet modern stressors, including coastal development, over-fishing, and sea level rise, threaten the long-term sustainability of ‘opihi consumption. 

In a project supported by the Pacific Islands CASC through the Manager Climate Corps program, researchers are monitoring ‘opihi populations across the Kalaemanō shoreline of Hawai’i to learn about seasonal shifts in shellfish habitats under present ocean conditions. They will then use this information to develop a model predicting how ‘opihi may be affected by different future sea level rise scenarios. This work is a collaboration between the Pacific Islands CASC, the University of Hawaii Hilo, the USFWS, the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, and a number of local conservation groups, including the non-profit Nā Maka Onaona. 

The graduate student leading this project, Lauren Kapono, has a personal and cultural connection to the study system. A native Hawaiian, she volunteered with the Nā Maka Onaona for seven years before starting graduate school, and she has long enjoyed eating ‘opihi with her friends and family. She hopes that this research further helps her local community reconnect with this important resource. 

“The goal is not only to provide a map of sea level rise, [but also] to really engage people in this space and allow them to remember what it feels like to be on the shoreline, to smell the ocean spray, to eat lima on the rocks, to hunt for ‘opihi,” Kapono says. 

“This long-term collaboration has allowed people to reconnect and learn something they never knew about their own land, their own ocean, their own selves.”