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Scientists urge lawmakers to protect opihi

    Biologists with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii told a House panel on Wednesday that stocks of the ocean snails off Oahu's shores are at dire lows.

Experts want state lawmakers to update regulations meant to protect opihi, a tasty mollusk whose numbers have crashed in parts of Hawaii.

Biologists with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii told a House panel on Wednesday that stocks of the ocean snails off Oahu’s shores are at dire lows. But with better management, they said, Oahu’s opihi can make a comeback and other islands’ stocks can be protected.

Scarcity has driven up the price of commercial opihi, said Chris Bird, a researcher with the institute and an assistant professor at the University of Texas A&M at Corpus Christi. He showed the panel photos of the snails on sale for $42.50 a pound, making note that those were just blackfoot, the least desirable of the three varieties around the islands.

Bird’s research on opihi show their numbers suffer in relation to nearby human populations, indicating to him that noncommercial opihi gathers, traveling short distances, pressure the stocks most severely.

"On the Big Island, they’re at the tipping point of decline," he said. "Oahu is decimated, and in a lot of trouble."

People gather opihi by pulling them from craggy rocks, the more treacherous the better. Violent waves are thought to make for better-tasting opihi, as the snails develop into strong, crunchy morsels by clutching the rock.

The elements make them salty and savory, like abalone with an algae zest.

"That’s why Hawaiians like them," Rob Toonen, a professor at the institute, said after the hearing. "It is the taste of the sea. It’s the crunch and the tang of the ocean."

Bird and Toonen said size regulations meant to safeguard opihi are failing in part because the koele variety are about twice as big as blackfoot or yellowfoot when they reach sexual maturity. Designating seasons for gathering opihi wouldn’t work because the snails need most of a year to mature and spawn, they said.

The biologists said healthy stocks in Molokai and Maui show that spatial management plans are the best hope to protect the breeding. If communities were to designate areas that they let rest for perhaps two years at a time, opihi stocks could be maintained. Another simple and effective step might be to restrict the harvest to opihi clinging to rocks above the water line, they said.

"For a thousand years, whether or not people starved to death or lived depended on whether or not they understood this," Toonen said after the hearing. "They understood the science. It’s rare that what we find doesn’t jive with traditional practices, because their lives depended on it."

Rep. Faye Hanohano, a Democrat from Puna, asked the biologists to meet and discuss possibilities with a Honolulu market owner who also testified. She said their suggestions might be incorporated into a House resolution or a bill in a later legislative session.

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