Tuesday 24 October 2023

The Science of Seafood Safety During Fishing Trips

 Image: By Frits Hoogesteger CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout human history, fishing has been an important part of our lives. Freshly caught fish are a nutrient dense source of protein and taste infinitely better than anything you can purchase from your local grocer, and the act of fishing provides exercise and mental health benefits. However, ensuring you are fishing safely and storing your catch properly are critical steps before you hit the lake.


By Brittany Cotton


The Health Benefits of Fishing

Fishing may not seem like exercise, but it certainly is! You'll get both a cardio workout and a strength workout, plus being outside and with other people is great for your mental health. Loading your gear, setting up to fish, casting, and reeling all work muscles in your core, back, arms, shoulders, and legs in a dynamic way, meaning in a way your body would naturally work. You'll get your cardio in when you're hiking to your fishing spot, or as you unload supplies and get a great spot set up! Plus, reeling in a fish can be much harder than it looks, which will get your blood pumping.



Your immune system gets a boost while you're fishing in the form of Vitamin D, an essential nutrient we absorb from the sun. It's important to note it's still important to wear sunscreen! You'll reap the benefits of Vitamin D without risking skin cancer. You'll also get a mental boost, as Vitamin D has been shown to improve your mood. The act of fishing is mentally stimulating as you need to make snap decisions about how and where to cast, when to start reeling, and how much line to give to avoid snapping. Social needs can be met while fishing if you bring a friend, plus you'll have some help with your supplies! Relaxing between casts is an added bonus, letting you recharge and rest. The fish you catch will continue to nourish you after your trip is over by delivering a fresh, healthy source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids without much fat.


How to Stay Safe on the Water

Before you cast off, consider how to mitigate any risks you might encounter. Dressing appropriately for the weather and type of fishing you're doing will go a long way towards protecting your sun from damaging UV rays and keeping you comfortable so you can keep fishing longer! Layers are one of the most effective ways to help keep you warm and control your body temperature, especially if you are fishing in an area with fluctuating temperatures throughout the day. Layering helps keep you warmer during the cold morning hours by trapping warm air between each layer of clothing, which acts as an insulator. As you remove layers of clothing, you're also reducing the warm insulating air bit by bit instead of all at once. Layering also allows you to take advantage of different material's properties. A waterproof jacket typically won't be great at wicking moisture away from your body, but adding a mid layer and a base layer that are made of a wicking material will. Top your ensemble off with sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes and face from glare.


As you remove layers, make sure any exposed skin is protected from the elements and wildlife! Waterproof sunscreen with Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide will provide the best sun protection. Remember, sun rays bouncing off the water are more intense than those you might encounter while walking or doing other activities, so your sunburn will be worse if you skip this step than it would on land. Clothing with sun protection built in is also available, which offers additional protection or an alternative to sunscreen if you're unable to wear it. A heavy duty bug spray is also crucial while near water, as many disease-carrying insects live and breed near bodies of water. If you'll be in an area with concrete pads or tables available, citronella candles can go a long way towards keeping you safe. Rubber wrist bands infused with citronella are also available. Before you purchase insect repellent, check with your local wildlife agency to see if there are recommended products for your area.


If you're fishing alone, make sure someone back home knows where you're going, what time you expect to be back, and which path you're taking to get to your fishing spot. If you don't check in with that person by the agreed upon time, they will know to reach out for assistance on your behalf. Your vehicle should be fully fueled, with adequate tire pressure and fluid levels. When traveling during more unpredictable times of year, having some emergency supplies in your vehicle is necessary in case you can't return from your fishing location due to sudden weather. A blanket, some shelf-stable snacks, and an extra gallon of drinking water will keep you safe while you wait.


If you're fishing on a boat, do a safety once-over before you leave home. Check to make sure there are no visible cracks or holes in the hull, and that your engine (if you have one) is gassed up and has enough oil and fluids. Double check if everyone you are going fishing with is familiar with boat safety, and if they are not consider whether they are worth the risk of bringing along. Remember, you can always fish from shore! While fishing, carefully watch where you're casting to avoid hooking the wrong person or item. Fishhooks are typically barbed at the end to keep fish from wriggling off after they're caught, but they don't discriminate by species and can embed themselves in your skin if you miscalculate your cast. If you're concerned about getting hooked, barbless hooks are available and are gaining popularity among anglers.


How to Keep Your Fish Fresh

Once you've caught a fish, you must prepare it to ensure it doesn't spoil before you have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labor. The steps involved in preparing a freshly caught fish properly may seem tedious, but they are crucial to avoid serious foodborne illness. Before you head out on your trip, make sure you have a cooler that seals well full of ice to keep your catch cold. Opening the cooler should be kept to a minimum to maintain its insulating properties, and adding an insulated bag to keep the prepared fish in will ensure your fish isn't swimming in a new melted ice lake within your cooler! Most big box stores will sell insulated bags around the frozen foods section. Another important tool is rinsing water to keep you, your gear, and your fish as clean as you can. If your area has potable tap water, you can fill a few gallon jugs before leaving, or purchase some from the store. Please make sure to recycle! Saving empty jugs for your next fishing trip helps keep plastic out of landfills.


Fish should be cleaned as soon as possible after catching to preserve the just-caught taste you're craving. Before you set off on your trip, double check your cleaning tools for any damage, and make sure your knife is sharp. It's advisable to use a knife specifically designed to prepare fish that has a thin, flexible blade and has been sharpened properly. Using a dull knife can be much more dangerous! Purchasing a knife from a fishing gear company, such as Delta Net and Twine, is a surefire way to know you've got a knife designed to handle the unique anatomy of a fish. Metal filet gloves are available to protect your hands as you cut and clean, ensuring you don't accidentally nick yourself. They should be inspected for rust or damage before each trip. To clean your fish, slice along the belly and remove the innards. Be aware of the fish's fins while you're working with it, as they can be extremely sharp in some species of fish. Strong pliers may be needed to remove the fins. Scrape a tool or your thumb along the back to remove backbone blood, and take out the gills and guts. These can be tossed back into the water for other fish to eat, or you can dig a hole between six and eight inches deep to compost these parts. It's important to dig your hole deep enough, as the bacteria that helps break down organic material isn't present in soil above that point in great enough quantities to decompose the extra parts of your catch. Finally, use the rinsing water to do a quick clean up of the fish, your tools, and your hands.


Once your fish has been cleaned, you'll need to choose how to prepare it to pack out. Filleting is a good choice if you don't mind some extra work in the field and don't want to eat any part of the fish except the fillets. This technique doesn't require you to remove internal organs, heads, or fins, as you're only cutting away the fillets from the rest of the fish. Pan dressing will result in a portion of fish with the tail still attached that may have bones. This is a faster technique that leaves some more undesirable parts of the fish behind. Skinning is a more specialized technique typically reserved for fish such as channel catfish or bullheads. Regardless of the technique you use to prepare your fish, it should be wrapped tightly in two layers- one layer of waxed paper, and a second layer of either plastic wrap or foil. Double layering the wrapping will keep everything inside the package to reduce the chances of spoilage. Put the wrapped pieces in a plastic zipper bag, then tuck them into the insulated bag on the bed of ice. To maintain a safe temperatures inside the cooler, only open your cooler once your fish is fully packaged, and minimize opening and closing it as much as possible. When your fishing trip is over for the day and you have your last bag of fish ready to go into the cooler, make sure to dig down a bit to cover the insulated bag with ice on all sides, including the top.


Once you're back from your fishing trip, your fish should be frozen immediately. Fish should always be defrosted in the refrigerator or under cold, running water. Don't defrost your fish by leaving it out on the counter overnight, as it will defrost quickly. When meat is frozen, any bacteria that may be living in or on it are put into a state of hibernation and will not grow. As soon as your meat begins to defrost, those bacteria defrost as well and can start to multiply. Cooking meat as soon as possible after it is defrosted is the best way to ensure this bacteria doesn't take over your dinner plans! Fish should never be thawed for more than one day before cooking to ensure the bacteria present don't become harmful to humans.


Whether you choose to fillet your fish, pan dress it, or skin it for later processing, washing your fish prior to cooking will help remove anything you don't want to be eating, including mud and scales that were left behind during descaling. Rinse your fish in cold water, then thoroughly pat dry with paper towels before cooking. Patting dry helps to ensure you don't get splattered with hot oil when you drop your fish in to the pan to cook. After you've eaten, cleaning surfaces carefully with a disinfectant will remove any lingering bacteria. Make sure you clean your tools thoroughly so you are ready to go next time the water calls!


Overall, fishing is a great way to connect with your friends and family, get some sunlight, exercise, and healthy food, and to rest and relax. Taking preventive action before your trip will help ensure a smooth experience, and being extremely mindful of safe fish preparation techniques both in the field and at home keeps you healthy while you enjoy your catch. Avoiding dangerous techniques in the field and at home will allow you to keep fishing for many years to come, and will ensure a happy dinner experience every time.


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