One Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researcher has simplified the job of counting, specifically a shellfish called ‘opihi. This makes tracking their over-harvested populations easier for scientists and could someday help them track other species such as oysters in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Hawaii, ‘opihi is considered a prized delicacy and is served only at special occasions. As the Hawaiian Kingdom transitioned from traditional to western practices of harvesting fish and marine life in the 1890's and 1900's, the ‘opihi fishery crashed from 150,000 pounds-per-year to about 10,000 pounds-per-year by 1944. Since then, there's been no recovery despite management efforts over the past 35 years. As a result, the price of ‘opihi is skyrocketing; up to $42.50 a pound at markets in Honolulu this past summer.

Dr. Chris Bird, Assistant Professor in the College of Science and Engineering, developed an android cellphone app that uses GPS, to not only keep count of the ‘opihi numbers, but to mark where they were found. Bird and his team used the new technology over the summer within parts of the federally protected Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

“As we count ‘opihi, we enter the number into the app. The app pinpoints our location with GPS and tracks what we found and where we found it,” said Bird. “This will be used to help scientists assess how ‘opihi populations vary over time, and measure their genetic diversity.”

Bird also says that shellfish populations like ‘opihi or oysters, with a swimming phase early in life, are akin to communication networks. If key network hubs go off line, the whole network fails, and thus we protect these hubs. Similarly, there are key locations in any shellfish population that receive and transmit a disproportionate number of individuals across generations. To promote a healthy, maximally sustaining fishery, we want to protect these nurseries, while harvesting in other areas. The app will also enable them to identify what places serve as ‘opihi nurseries and thus note their importance for the replenishment of ‘opihi populations. This could help regulators protect these zones and lead to the recovery of ‘opihi numbers.

“Under this management strategy, hubs of population connectivity are designated as ‘opihi pu'uhonua (places of refuge) that reproduce and seed harvested locations,” said Bird. “We are beginning similar work on identifying hubs of population connectivity in Gulf of Mexico oysters.”

Bird says his research will be used to advance the understanding of marine population biology, fisheries management, and is being used to directly inform new management strategies being discussed by the State of Hawaii and Hawaiian communities.

Bird, along with Dr. Robert Toonen at the University of Hawaii, Hawaii State Sen. Clayton Hee and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, co-authored a Bill last year aimed at implementing a new management strategy that is informed by science and is sensitive to the concerns of fishermen, fish markets, and Hawaiian culture.

Bird says ‘opihi are more than just a tasty appetizer, they are icons in Hawaiian culture. For example, ‘opihi are the protagonist in several children’s books and the subject of several Hawaiian proverbs.

“‘Opihi are admired for their humbleness and perseverance,” said Bird “They look unassuming, yet are able to cling to rocks even in surf that would kill the strongest of men.”