An Outdoor View: Proper care of dead fish

Author’s note: Second of a two-part series, this column was first published by the Clarion on Sept. 10, 2004.

Last week in this column, I offered some reasons why people might be less than enthusiastic about eating your fish or seeing you coming with “gift” fish. This week, let’s consider some things you can do to improve your popularity.

Ideally, fish are stunned, bled, gutted and chilled as soon as possible. While it’s not always practical to do all of these things, doing what you can pays dividends.

Tips from experts on proper care of fish include:

■ Stun fish with a blow to the head, near the eyes. Stunning stops the fish from exhausting itself, which leads to a buildup of lactic acid in the flesh, thought to cause “chalkiness” in halibut.

■ Cutting a couple of gill rakers will cause a fish to bleed out. If you kill the fish before bleeding it, it won’t bleed because its heart isn’t beating. Halibut should be positioned “white side up” while bleeding.

■ Fish should be gutted as soon as possible to prevent enzymes from damaging the flesh. On a small boat, gutting in a small tote will limit the mess.

■ Chill fish as soon as possible. Packing whole or gutted fish in crushed or flaked ice is a good way to do this.

■ Transport fresh fillets by putting them in a plastic bag and surrounding the bag with ice. Don’t let raw flesh contact ice; when ice melts, the water leeches flavor and color from the fish and changes its texture. For the same reason, keep fish off the bottom of coolers, where water accumulates.

■ For freezing, the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service recommends vacuum packaging over all other methods. Home vacuum-packaging systems are available and affordable. Frozen fish exposed to the oxygen in air become dehydrated (“freezer burned”). Exposure to air causes rancidity in salmon and other fatty fish.

■ Freeze fish as quickly as possible. Ideally, fish is “flash frozen.” According to Ed’s Kasilof Seafoods’ Web site (, the best temperature for flash freezing is minus 40 F with a minus 10 F core temperature in less than 5 hours. Home freezers can’t do this, but the better commercial processors can. Some local processors offer freezing, vacuum packaging and other services.

■ Piling unfrozen fish on top of frozen food thaws and degrades the frozen food. The best way to freeze fish at home is with two freezers: one for freezing and one for storing. The “freezing” freezer should have large shelves.

■ Don’t overload your freezer. Trying to freeze too much at one time slows the process. Spread out the packages on racks, so air can circulate between them.

■ Keep your storage freezer at 0 F or colder. Check the temperature with a thermometer to ensure that it’s no higher than 0 F. Keep the interior surfaces frost free.

■ Don’t freeze more fish than you will use during its expected shelf life.

■ Leave frozen fish sealed in its vacuum package or in a plastic bag, and thaw it under cold, running water. Never thaw seafood at room temperature.

Some people mistakenly believe that food, once frozen, doesn’t change. The flavor and texture of freezer-stored foods definitely change over time. This is especially true of seafoods stored in home freezers.

Whole fish and thick chunks of fish can take days to completely freeze in a home freezer. Bacteria continue to grow until the internal temperature of fish gets down to about 0 F. Bacteria can cause an “off” flavor and odor. Another bad thing about slow freezing is that it causes large ice crystals to form in the flesh. This can be the cause of dry, tough fish. I suspect it’s also the main reason that big halibut have a reputation for not being as good to eat as small halibut.

I’ve seen charts that show storage time of frozen fish as low as 1 month for fatty fish, such as salmon, and 2 1/2 months for lean fish, such as halibut. By taking proper care of your fish, you can greatly extend these storage times. The fish that I vacuum pack and freeze at home is excellent 9 months later. Commercial processors claim a 1-year storage life for the fish they freeze.

Taking proper care of fish is time well spent. Fish and the pursuit of them provide us with food, recreation and many other good things. The least we can do is give them the respect they deserve.

For more information on the proper care and freezing of fish:

Pick up a free copy of “Home Freezing of Fish” at the Alaska Cooperative Extension office (34824 Kalifornsky Beach Rd.). Or visit their Web site (, click on “Publications,” and follow the links.

■ ■ ■

Les Palmer can be reached at

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