Savannah Valley District

Homemaker’s Column: Fish Safety

Christine J. Patrick, County Extension Agent – EFNEP

In South Carolina, where water is everywhere, fishing is a significant summer activity.  We have lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, and canals, and they are filled with a variety of fish and seafood. These fish and seafood come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, but they all have one thing in common. They are acclimated to an environment that is cooler than outdoor summer temperatures and will quickly degrade when taken out of the water. With fish, the number one food safety rule is ICE.  The faster you can chill them, the better they will be. The only way to ensure that your fresh catch retains the highest quality and is safe to eat is to pack them in ice immediately. They should be buried in ice.

Fresh-caught fish from either freshwater or saltwater must be handled properly to avoid spoilage and to maintain a delicate flavor, firm texture, and a pleasing odor. Proper handling should begin when landing the fish. Always minimize bruising caused by contact with hard surfaces (decks, gunwales, etc.). The fish should be washed immediately, either by hosing down or bucket rinses to remove slime and spoilage bacteria. The wash water can be clean lake, stream, or seawater. However, if natural water is used, do not use water from proximity to marinas, municipal, industrial, or agricultural discharges. When in doubt, use potable water.

Exposure to the sun and summertime temperatures can cause quality problems in less than an hour. However, simply chilling fish can prevent quality deterioration and reduce health risks resulting from elevated temperatures. Proper icing can be accomplished with a bit of planning and some relatively inexpensive equipment. The most effective chilling method available to recreational anglers in saltwater areas is a brine slush-ice mixture. This is made by adding clean seawater to ice (equal portions) in a waterproof container. Immediately after washing, the fish (alive or dead) should be immersed in the brine slush and kept there until ready to dress at the end of the trip. When making up the brine slush, care should be taken to avoid seawater contaminated with oil, fuel, or dirt and slime. A slush mixture can also be used in freshwater areas but will not be as effective as one made with saltwater. In either case, check the slush periodically for adequate ice.

Clean fish as soon as possible after catching them. Fish tissue is almost sterile, but the skin surface and viscera contain many types of bacteria. The skin slime and viscera also provide food for bacterial growth. Avoid rough treatment while cleaning the fish. Gouges or wounds in the flesh are openings that may allow the spread of bacteria. Gut the fish with a smooth, not excessively long, belly cut and leave no blood or viscera in the body cavity. Thoroughly wash all cleaned fish and ice immediately with fresh, clean ice. Do not dip cleaned fish in the original brine slush. Do not immerse cleaned fillets in a prolonged freshwater soak that could dilute and reduce meat flavor and texture.

Both crushed or flaked ice are suitable for rapid chilling of cleaned fish. Fish stored in crushed or flaked ice remain moist and glossy and do not dry out as fast as fish placed in refrigerated storage without ice. The fisherman should decide how much ice is needed for each fishing trip by considering the length of the journey, water and air temperatures, and, nearly as possible, the expected catch size. It is better to throw out ice than fish at the end of a trip.

In general, fish stored in coolers will be well-chilled when:

  • Three (3) inches of ice cover the bottom of the cooler
  • Fish are laid in the cooler and mixed with ice, and the contents are covered with another layer of ice 3 inches deep
  • The cooler contains a pound of ice for each pound of fish

Back home, discard any remaining ice in the cooler to prevent bacterial buildup between fishing trips. To kill bacteria and to avoid contamination of new ice, thoroughly wash and rinse the inside of the cooler, then do a final rinse with chlorinated water or a solution of 1 teaspoon liquid chlorine bleach per quart of water.

For detailed information on handling fresh fish, check out Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center website; see HGIC 3604 Fresh-Caught Fish.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. It is an equal opportunity employer.