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Delicious – worms for breakfast

It’s time to eat worms. Twice a year, a certain type of worm rises from the reefs in the Pacific and this signals a feeding frenzy among many Pacific islanders.

Yes, they eat worms and they love it. The marine worms are boiled, grilled or devoured raw as they wriggle fresh out of the containers they are captured in.

While many loath the sight of worms, it is a different story for certain Pacific nations where the palolo (balolo, Wawo, Nyale or Palola viridis)- a sea worm is considered a delicacy.

Palola viridis, (or Eunice viridis) are a Polychaeta (bristle marine worms) that inhabit crevices, cavities and coral rubble in coral reefs. Balolo expert, Petinne Simpson says the worms have to be eaten fast.

Pettine Simpson holds out her harvest of balolo worms which is considered a delicacy in the Pacific. Picture Pettine Simpson
Pettine Simpson holds out her harvest of balolo worms which is considered a delicacy in the Pacific. Picture: Pettine Simpson

“The balolo (as it is known in Fiji) has an acquired taste that are best collected in the (early) hours of the morning at (around) 4am before it melts away with the rising sun,” she said.

“From the age of three years, I have been involved in harvesting the worm which rises two times a year. I can’t compare the taste of the balolo to anything whether raw or cooked.”

Samoan national Fetuao Leota said the worms taste like the ocean and are crunchy when eaten raw.

“It is mostly accompanied with root crops such as bredfruit, taro or cassava to give it a wholesome taste,” Mr Leota said.

“It is often covered in leaves and boiled or grilled but my other favourite cooking method of the delicacy is to have it deep fried in batter because it has this certain crunch that is refreshing. Palolo is the caviar of the Pacific.”

Fresh palolo worms collected in Samoa. Picture Savaii Tourism Association Facebook
Fresh palolo worms collected in Samoa. Picture: Savaii Tourism Association Facebook

Papua New Guinea native, Peter Marape said the taste of the sea found in the palolo worms sets it apart from other seafood.

Found in the waters of the tropical regions throughout Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, and parts of Asia in the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines, the palolo worm has a unique breeding behaviour and is observed to breed at least twice a year at almost the same time annually following a particular phase of the moon.

During the breeding season, the worms break in half; the tail section (epitoke) carries the reproductive cells, while the head section (atoke) remains in the crevice or cavities of the coral.

The tail section contains sacs of eggs and sperm, which swim to the surface in the thousands where they are released into the water column.

These ‘tails’ containing the reproductive cells, swarm the surface of the sea in masses of long, wriggly strands, often mistakenly called worms.

Palolo worms grow up to 40 cm long and have segmented bodies. The males exhibit reddish brown coloration, while the females are bluish green.

Cultural use of palolo worms

Among the Pacific nations where the palolo rises, it is revered and used as a delicacy which is only enjoyed twice a year. The rising of the palolo is widely used in Melanesia to mark the traditional calendar.

Samoans collecting palolo worms in Savaii. Picture Savaii Tourism Association Facebook
Samoans collecting palolo worms in Savaii. Picture: Savaii Tourism Association Facebook

Its harvest is carried out with reverence and cultural significance as the harvest would then be shared with communities where the spawning has not occurred.

Every community where palolo worms are harvested have their unique preparation methods. While it is eaten raw in Samoa, it is wrapped in leaves and grilled over the fire or in stone ovens in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Future of palolo worms

Scientific findings indicate that the palolo worms could become extinct as the result of the current local and global stressors affecting coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

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This species is currently listed in IUCN Red-List as a threatened species, however, there is limited data available to better understand the species.

With more research undertaken through social and biological surveys, the palolo worm can be protected and continue to thrive as a delicacy in the Pacific region where it exists.

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