Clinging to Survival

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Story by Paul Wood | Photography by Bob Bangerter

Opihi Research
Mauians have traveled with scientists to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to study pristine ‘opihi populations. At right, a survey team heads to Mokupāpapa; above, performing transect surveys on Mokumanamana.

“‘Opihi is our lifestyle,” says Keahi Lind, a commercial fisherman and cattle rancher from the remote East Maui district of Kipahulu. “Used to be, when we enjoyed a day at the beach, always had plenty of ‘opihi, two or three a night for everybody.”

He and others from the Kipahulu ‘Ohana — an elder council whose name contains the Hawaiian word for “family” — have driven the twisting belt road to meet here, at a concrete picnic table beside shining Hana Bay. It’s late afternoon. The sun is headed over the mountain for its usual day’s-end dazzle on the other side of the island, leaving the little round bay quiet and slowly darkening. A couple dogs are racing harmlessly around, five tourists are washing sand off their legs, and pickup trucks are parking under the trees. It’s pau hana — after work — time to hang out.

Hank Eharis is with us. “We live off the shoreline. That’s our backyard. That’s our icebox. As kids, we were not going to the store for a bag of chips. We went running to the seashore to pick a few ‘opihi.” Hank is a mature Hawaiian mountain man whose face creases easily into mirth and kindness. He works as resource manager for the National Park Service and typically spends days at a time in the wild upper forests. He has come to the bay to speak for Na Mamo o Mu‘olea — “the descendants of Mu‘olea” — a point of land along the East Maui coast. A registered nonprofit like Kipahulu ‘Ohana, Na Mamo o Mu‘olea is dedicated to the self-governance of a small community whose roots go deeper than recorded history.

“‘Opihi,” he says, “it’s the taste of the ocean. You take a couple off the rocks, add some limu [seaweed] — no can beat.” But lately the ‘opihi populations have crashed along East Maui’s shorelines, and the two communities have begun to take action, establishing no-harvest zones, patrolling those areas themselves, and learning scientific monitoring protocols to measure the vitality of this wild resource. In doing so, they have developed a model for bottom-up conservation practices, a model with broad implications: Don’t wait for the State to prevent the greedy grabbing of waning resources.


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