How Long Can Fish Be Dead Before They Go Bad? Find Out Now!

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Have you ever purchased a fish for dinner, but ended up forgetting about it and leaving it in the fridge for too long? Or maybe you caught a fish while fishing and forgot to put it on ice before bringing it home. Either way, not knowing how long a dead fish can last is something important to consider if you want to avoid foodborne illnesses.

There are many factors that can determine how quickly a dead fish will go bad such as temperature, storage methods, and type of fish. For example, some types of fish have higher fat content which makes them spoil quicker than others.

“In general, fresh fish should be consumed within two days or less of being stored in the refrigerator,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Kaleigh McMordie.

But what happens if you don’t consume it within those two days? This is where things start to get risky. Bacteria multiply rapidly in warm and moist environments, so leaving a fish out at room temperature for even a few hours could lead to the growth of harmful bacteria.

This blog post will provide you with more in-depth information on how long different types of fish can last when stored properly, as well as tips for identifying whether your fish has gone bad and how to safely dispose of it.

The Importance of Proper Storage

Proper storage is essential for maintaining the quality and safety of fish. Fish that are not stored correctly can lead to illnesses, food poisoning, and a general decline in flavor and texture.

Benefits of Proper Storage

When fish are stored correctly, there are numerous benefits both for consumers and those who sell or produce fish-based dishes:

  • The shelf life of the fish greatly extends, meaning less waste for retailers and home cooks alike
  • The taste and texture remain fresh and delicious
  • Reduced risk of contamination, as bacteria have less time and opportunity to grow
  • Overall, proper storage leads to better health outcomes and enjoyment of fish-based dishes

Risks of Improper Storage

Fish can go bad quickly if they are not properly stored. One primary risk of improper storage is the growth of harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella and Vibrio vulnificus. This poses a serious health risk for anyone ingesting these contaminated foods.

Another issue is that fish that are not stored correctly can develop an unpleasant odor that makes them unappetizing. Even beyond this, storing fish for too long can cause it to spoil, leading to potential cases of food poisoning in those who consume it.

“Improperly handled raw seafood can harbor pathogenic microorganisms that can cause illness when consumed,” said Danielle Schor, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Functional Nutrition Therapy. “The speed at which pathogens reproduce increases with temperature, so it’s important to make sure that seafood stays cold enough during transport, display at the store and once you get it home.”

Best Practices for Fish Storage

Here are some key practices to ensure that fish remain fresh and safe to eat:

  • Use fresh seafood whenever possible
  • If purchasing fish at a store, check it is being stored at appropriate temperatures (below 40°F) and avoid purchases from overly cold people or whose flesh has begun to freeze together in the package as this could suggest temperature abuse.
  • Store fish on ice if you plan on holding it before cooking
  • Cook or refrigerate fish within two hours of buying it
  • If fish will be stored for more than two days prior to cooking, keep it in an airtight container and place in the coldest part of your refrigerator (generally the back), at a constant temperature of 32°-38°F. Add extra layers of protection by wrapping tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil before storing.
  • Fish can be frozen, but if it is already partially thawed it should be cooked immediately because partial thawing leads to pathogenic bacteria multiplying faster, Schor said.
“Rinse all seafood thoroughly with cool water when you bring it home, pat it dry with paper towels, and either cook it right away or store it safely until you’re ready to use it,” says Water Johns, co-founder of American Seafood Company.

With these best practices, consumers and foodservice providers alike can feel confident in the safety and quality of the seafood they serve. Remember to always store fish properly – ensuring optimal freshness and health outcomes. Happy eating!

Factors Affecting Fish Spoilage

If you’re wondering “how long can fish be dead before they go bad?” it’s important to understand the factors that affect fish spoilage. Here are the four main factors:


The temperature of fish is very important when it comes to spoilage. Fish must be kept at a cool temperature, ideally around 32-39°F, to slow down bacterial growth and keep them fresh for longer. If the temperature rises above this range, bacteria will start to grow more quickly and cause the fish to spoil faster.

In fact, every time the temperature increases by 18°F, the rate of bacterial growth doubles, so storing fish at temperatures outside of the ideal range can significantly shorten their shelf life.

Oxygen Exposure

Fish require oxygen during the first stage of spoilage called aerobic decomposition. As soon as the fish dies, bacteria in its gut begin to consume the fish’s flesh as a source of energy. This process requires oxygen and releases enzymes that break down the proteins and lipids, causing the fishy odor we associate with spoiled seafood.

If fish are exposed to too much oxygen after being caught, like if they’re left out in the air or stored in plastic bags without proper ventilation, the aerobic decomposition process accelerates, leading to foul-smelling meat. To avoid spoiling due to oxygen exposure, store your fish in an airtight container in the fridge for no longer than two days.

Bacterial Growth

The amount and type of bacteria present on a fish will determine how quickly it spoils. Some species have naturally low levels of bacteria on their skin, such as salmon, while others have high levels, like shellfish. Once these bacteria make contact with the flesh of a dead fish, they can start to reproduce quickly and release enzymes that break it down.

Bacterial growth is accelerated by warm temperatures, so as soon as fish are caught, they need to be stored on ice or in a cooler until they’re ready to be cooked or cured.


The longer fish sits at unsafe temperatures or is exposed to air and bacteria, the worse it will smell and taste. In general, fresh seafood should be eaten within two days of being caught. If you’re buying pre-packaged raw fish from the store, look for a sell-by date and don’t purchase if it’s already past due.

If you bought fresh fish but realize you won’t be able to eat it before reaching its expiration date, consider freezing it instead. Fish that’s been properly packaged and frozen can last up to six months without spoiling or developing freezer burn.

  • Tips:
  • Rinse your fish thoroughly with cold water after preparing to remove blood, scales, and other debris to prevent bacterial buildup and odors.
  • Only buy fish from reputable sources, like grocery stores and seafood markets, that follow proper handling and hygiene practices to avoid contamination and spoilage.
“The age-old myths about how to tell when seafood isn’t good to eat anymore focuses on looking for murky / cloudy eyes or red gills – these are not signs that seafood has ‘gone bad,’ those characteristics also often occur in very fresh fish however it could still be misleading.” -The Ultimate Guide to Buying Fresh Seafood

How to Tell if Fish Has Gone Bad

Fish is a popular and healthy food choice for many people. However, like any perishable item, fish can go bad over time. Eating spoiled fish can lead to serious health problems, so it’s important to know how to tell if fish has gone bad before consuming it.


The appearance of the fish is often the first clue that it has gone bad. Fresh fish should have bright eyes that are clear and bulging. The skin should also be shiny with vibrant scales that adhere tightly to the body. If the eyes appear cloudy and sunken, or the skin feels slimy or oily to the touch, then the fish has likely started to spoil. Additionally, if the scales are discolored or falling off, then the fish may not be safe to eat.

“Fresh fish should smell like the ocean.” -Shaw’s Supermarkets


The scent of the fish is another key indicator of whether it has gone bad. Fresh fish should have a mild sea-like aroma that is not overpowering. If the odor is excessively strong or has an ammonia-like smell, then the fish has probably gone bad. It’s essential to trust your nose when assessing the freshness of fish because even a slight hint of sourness can indicate that it is no longer safe to consume.


The texture of the fish is another way to gauge its freshness. When fresh, the flesh of the fish should feel firm and bouncy to the touch. If it feels mushy or soft instead, then the fish has likely gone bad. Another sign that the fish is past its prime is if there are areas on the surface where the flesh has turned opaque instead of translucent. This opaque appearance can be a result of bacterial growth and is not safe to consume.


The final way to determine if fish has gone bad is by tasting it. Spoiled fish will often have an unpleasant flavor that may leave a sour or bitter aftertaste in your mouth. If you detect any off-putting tastes, immediately spit out the fish and discard the rest. Eating spoiled fish can lead to several health issues such as food poisoning and stomach problems.

“If it has even a slightly ‘off’ smell, toss it.” -Bon Appétit Magazine

It’s essential to keep in mind that proper storage is key in preventing fish from spoiling quickly. Fish should always be stored properly in a refrigerator at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid spoilage. Fresh fish purchased from a reputable source should generally last two to three days past its sell-by date when kept under these ideal conditions. Once cooked, leftover fish should be consumed within two to three days as well.

Learning how to tell if fish has gone bad is critical for ensuring that you are consuming fresh and healthy seafood. By using sight, smell, texture, and taste to assess the freshness of the fish, you can avoid potential health hazards and enjoy delicious and nutritious seafood meals that are safe to eat.

Preventing Fish Spoilage

Proper Storage

The first step in preventing fish spoilage is proper storage. When a fish dies, bacteria begin to grow and break down the fish’s tissues. Storing fish at temperatures of 40°F or below can slow or stop bacterial growth.

One of the most important things you can do when storing fish is to keep it cold. This means placing the fish on ice as soon as possible after catching it. If you are not able to put the fish on ice immediately, ensure that it stays cool by covering it with wet towels or putting it in a cooler with ice packs. Once you are ready to store your fish, remove any entrails and wash it thoroughly under cold water before patting dry and wrapping tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Store the wrapped fish in the coldest part of your refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to cook it.

“When you catch a fish that you want to eat, there’s only one thing better than eating it fresh that day, and that’s taking it home and smoking it.” -Tom Douglas

Proper Handling

In addition to proper storage, handling your fish correctly can prevent spoilage. Avoid leaving fish out for extended periods of time, keeping it away from warm environments which encourage bacterial growth.

If you choose to clean the fish yourself rather than having someone else do it, be careful not to puncture the stomach or intestines when removing them. Puncturing these organs releases harmful bacteria into the meat of the fish which can cause rapid spoiling. Clean your work space frequently with soapy water and disinfectant to avoid cross-contamination.

To further reduce the risk of spoilage, always use clean utensils when preparing fish and avoid touching the fish or any utensils with dirty hands. Finally, properly dispose of any leftover fish within a few days to avoid bacterial growth and spoilage.

“Never judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.” -Albert Einstein

Proper Cooking

Even if you have stored and handled your fish correctly, it is important to cook it fully before serving. This not only ensures that harmful bacteria have been destroyed but also improves the flavor and texture of the fish.

The FDA recommends cooking fish until it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F. This can be measured using a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the flesh. If you are unsure whether your fish has reached this temperature, look for visual cues such as opaque flesh that flakes easily when forked.

To ensure even cooking, choose fillets that are similar in shape and size so they will cook at the same rate. Additionally, marinating fish prior to cooking can help add extra moisture and flavor while further minimizing bacterial growth during cooking.

“Fish, to taste right, must swim three times -in water, in butter, and in wine.” -Polish proverb
In summary, storing, handling, and cooking fish all play a vital role in preventing spoilage. By following proper techniques, you can enjoy fresh fish without worrying about potential health risks.

Food Safety Guidelines for Fish Consumption

Determine Safe Consumption Limits

When it comes to determining safe consumption limits for fish, it is important to know how long the fish has been dead before cooking. In general, fresh fish should be consumed within two days of being caught or purchased and properly refrigerated at 40°F or lower. However, if the fish was initially frozen and thawed, it can last up to six months in the freezer.

If you are unsure about the freshness of your fish, look for signs such as a strong odor, slimy texture, or discoloration. If any of these are present, it’s best to discard the fish altogether.

It’s also advisable to limit consumption of certain types of fish due to their potential mercury content. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women, nursing mothers, young children, and those with compromised immune systems avoid consuming shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. These individuals should instead opt for safer options like salmon, shrimp, and tilapia.

Proper Cooking Temperatures

Cooking fish thoroughly is another key factor in ensuring its safety for consumption. The FDA suggests cooking fish to an internal temperature of 145°F or until the meat flakes easily with a fork.

For grilled or baked fish, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature. When frying or sautéing fish, cook until the flesh becomes opaque and separates easily from the bone or skin.

In addition to proper cooking techniques, there are other steps you can take to reduce your risk of foodborne illness from fish. Make sure to wash your hands frequently while handling fish and avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards and knives for raw meat and vegetables.

“The most common cause of foodborne illness from seafood is poor temperature control — not cooking or holding fish at proper temperatures,” says Jennifer McEntire, the former vice president of science operations for The Acheson Group and now an expert on food safety at the United Fresh Produce Association.

Knowing safe consumption limits, identifying signs of freshness, and properly cooking fish are all essential in preventing foodborne illnesses associated with fish. By taking these steps, you can safely enjoy a variety of fish as part of your healthy diet.

Alternative Uses for Spoiled Fish


If you have spoiled fish that cannot be salvaged, turn it into compost instead of throwing it in the trash. Compost is an excellent natural fertilizer for plants and helps to enrich the soil. The nutrients from fish add valuable nitrogen and phosphorus to your compost which can help stimulate plant growth.

The process of composting fish is relatively simple. First, cut up the fish into small pieces so that it decomposes quickly. Next, bury the fish deep inside your compost pile or bin so that it is not exposed to animals or insects. You can also mix the fish with other organic materials like grass clippings and kitchen scraps to speed up the decomposition process. Avoid adding too much fish to your compost as it could attract unwanted pests.

“Adding a small amount of fish waste to your compost is a great way to boost its nutrient value.” – Purdue University Extension

Pet Food

If your pet enjoys raw food, feeding them spoiled fish may seem like a great idea. However, be cautious before doing so as there are risks involved. Depending on how long the fish has been dead, bacteria such as salmonella or listeria may have formed on the meat. This bacteria is dangerous not only for pets but for humans as well if ingested.

If you decide to feed your pet spoiled fish, cook it thoroughly first to kill any bacteria present. Additionally, make sure to include other ingredients like grains and vegetables in their diet to provide a balanced meal.

“It’s best to avoid feeding your pet spoiled fish unless it has been cooked thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness.” – American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)


In addition to using fish waste for composting, it can also be used as a natural fertilizer directly on your plants. This is especially useful for acid loving plants like blueberries who thrive in nutrient-rich soil.

You can create your own fish emulsion by soaking spoiled fish parts in water for a few weeks until the liquid turns brown. Strain out any solid pieces and dilute with more water before applying to your plants. Be careful not to apply too much or it may overwhelm your plants and cause damage.

“Using fish emulsion as a fertilizer has been shown to increase plant growth and yields in various crops.” – University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service
Overall, spoiled fish can still be put to good use instead of being thrown away. By composting, feeding pets (cautiously), and creating your own fish emulsion, you not only reduce waste but also provide valuable nutrients to your garden. Just remember to exercise caution when handling spoiled fish and always follow safe food handling practices.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can fish be dead before they go bad?

Fish can go bad quickly after death, with some types of fish being more perishable than others. In general, fish should be cooked or frozen within two days of being caught or purchased. However, factors such as temperature, handling, and storage can also affect how quickly fish goes bad.

What are the signs that indicate fish has gone bad?

Some signs that indicate fish has gone bad include a strong, unpleasant odor, slimy or discolored skin, and a cloudy or milky appearance in the eyes. If the fish is already cooked, a sour or rancid taste can also indicate spoilage. It’s important to discard any fish that shows these signs to avoid getting sick from eating it.

Can you eat fish that has been dead for a week?

No, it’s not safe to eat fish that has been dead for a week. Even if it looks and smells okay, harmful bacteria can grow on the fish and cause food poisoning. It’s important to follow proper storage and handling guidelines to ensure that fish stays fresh and safe to eat.

Does the type of fish affect how long it can be dead before going bad?

Yes, the type of fish can affect how long it can be dead before going bad. Some types of fish are more perishable than others, and factors such as size, fat content, and age can also play a role. Generally, oily fish like salmon and tuna spoil more quickly than lean fish like cod and halibut.

What is the best way to store fish to prevent it from going bad?

The best way to store fish is to keep it cold and dry. Store fresh fish in the refrigerator at 32-39°F in a covered dish or plastic bag with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Frozen fish should be stored at 0°F or lower in an airtight container or freezer bag. It’s also important to handle fish carefully and avoid cross-contamination with other foods.

How can you tell if fish is still fresh before buying it?

To tell if fish is still fresh before buying it, look for clear, shiny eyes, firm and elastic flesh, and a mild, ocean-like smell. The gills should be bright red or pink and free of slime. Avoid fish that has a strong, unpleasant odor, dull eyes, or flesh that is soft or discolored. Fresh fish should be displayed on ice or refrigerated and handled by the vendor with gloves or tongs to prevent contamination.

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