UH Hilo graduate student investigates ‘opihi as indicator of climate change

The research of Lauren Kapono includes not only scientific discovery of the salt water limpet but also the cultural, community, and personal impacts of climate change on coastal residents.

By Susan Enright

Above, listen to Lauren Kapono talk about the science-driven, community initiative she leads.

Researchers on coastline studying opihi.
Researchers led by Lauren Kapono study ʻopihi.

Are ’opihi helping reveal how sea-level rise may affect Hawaiian shorelines? Yes they are.

A partnership between the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, state and federal agencies, and the coastal community of Kaʻūpūlehu, Kona, has given a graduate student at UH Hilo the opportunity to study the impact of sea-level rise on the coastal area and answer questions posed by the community.

Lauren Kapono, a native Hawaiian student in UH Hiloʻs tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, has been monitoring ʻopihi in the area for years while teaching local groups on her methodology. Her connections to both the community and UH Hilo researchers makes her the ideal expert to be leading this research. She was working on the project for seven years prior to entering graduate school.

The project is supported by the Kaʻūpūlehu community, Nā Maka Onaona, UH Hilo, Pacific Islands-Climate Adaptation Science Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.

For over a decade, local community members from the Ka‘ūpūlehu community have been engaged in researching and protecting ’opihi (Hawaiian limpet). ʻOpihi provide a vital community subsistence fishery and are an indispensable part of Hawaiian culture. The Ka‘ūpūlehu community is working with researchers to better understand how sea-level rise, land use, and unknown future pressures affect the future of ’opihi.

When asked to provide what resonates with her about this project, Lauren Kapono quoted Leinaʻala Keakealani Lightner: “Kalo, wai, limu, paʻakai, these are all resources that need to exist so that we can exist. This long-term collaboration has allowed people to reconnect and learn something they never knew about their own land, their own ocean, their own environment, their own selves”, added Lightner.

Ms. Kaponoʻs study proposes two main research questions that describe intertidal habitat shifts in response to sea level rise. 1. What are the seasonal shifts in ‘opihi habitat during present day conditions?; and 2. How the development of a model will help predict where ‘opihi habitat will be at times in the near future when the rising sea reaches 1.5 ft and later 6 ft?

The project final products will include models and maps of shifting intertidal habitats for ‘opihi, which will directly support the ability of on-the-ground managers to make more informed decisions by incorporating past, present and future datasets into the decision making process.

Additional opportunities will be provided to undergraduate and graduate students wishing to assist with the research, as well as interactive sessions to share information learned with the local community.

Read more about the project in a blog post by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kapono was a Keaholoa STEM Native Scholar as an undergraduate at UH Hilo. She graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in marine science. She then served as a Hawai‘i Island program coordinator for Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea, a small non-profit organization on Hawai‘i Island that focuses on community health and wellness by supporting the overall cultural, spiritual, and physical health of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Read more about Kapono’s work at Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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