Emergency Food Supplies: Ways to Prepare Fish Safely

During an emergency, fishing is one way to acquire fresh and nutritious meat for your table. However, many lakes, streams and rivers have suffered for decades from mercury, fertilizer, and other chemical contamination that has slowly seeped into local fish populations. These dangerous chemicals are easily transferred from that fresh fish you caught into you, and can cause serious illness or even death in bad cases. Since it is very difficult to know if a river or fish is contaminated without access to a laboratory, how can you reduce your risk of fish-borne chemical poisoning?

Disclaimer: Poisons like mercury, DDT and the like should be taken seriously. Although this article presents some helpful guidelines, it is not a complete manual to selecting a perfectly healthy fish to eat. If you have any concerns about the quality of the fish you want to consume, make sure to talk with your local fishing regulatory agency, the EPA, and other appropriate professionals. If you think you’ve consumed an unhealthy fish consult a doctor and if needed seek treatment. If you’re in an emergency situation these tips will help, but while you’re still paying taxes for people to check on the health of fish you might as well take advantage of it!

How to Prepare Fish Safely?

In order to safely prepare fish, always check the health of the fish in advance, as well as any possible chemical contamination. Look for obvious sources of pollutants, and don’t forget to examine the internal organs, the skin, the fat and the head of the fish. Take the time to learn the safe rivers, proper fish selection, and cooking techniques.

smoked fish

Careful Preparation Before You Head Out Fishing

The first preventative step is to ensure that the body of water you’re fishing in is considered relatively clean. The EPA has a list of fish advisories as well as helpful links to state and local regulatory bodies that have their own advisories, both of which should be monitored for activity in your area. Obviously in an emergency you wouldn’t have access to a website, but if you kept your knowledge fairly up to date, perhaps with a physical map marked with the latest advisories, you would be much better informed even so. Advisories give you an idea of the level of mercury, DDT, Dioxins, and other poisons present in the local fish which allows you to make more informed decisions when looking for a lake or stream to scour for your meal.

Another key method is to limit the kinds fish you will eat, as some fish are more prone to being full of toxins than others. For example, carp and catfish are known to have the highest levels of toxicity owing to their bottom feeding habits. Panfish such as bluegill and perch on the other hand are known to be much less toxic than the average fish owing to their high insect diet. Generally speaking any fish that subsists on other fish should be eaten while young, as older specimens tend to build up higher levels of chemicals from their prey. Furthermore, younger fish tend to lack the fat that holds a large part of the toxins found in most fish. Obviously a lake that’s filled with mercury or poisonous fertilizer runoff isn’t going to provide healthy fish of any kind regardless of type, but in reasonably clean water it would be useful to be selective.

Finally, take the time to look for obvious sources of pollutants nearby. You don’t need an EPA map to tell you that a sunken boat leaking oil and gasoline into the water isn’t exactly going to give you healthy fish! Particularly after a disaster, there may be clear signs of danger in the water ranging from cars and boats to corpses floating down the river. Furthermore, be especially careful if the disaster involved flooding or any other issue that caused rivers to rise above their usual banks and flood out as that can expose fish to new toxins not usually present.

Once You’ve Brought in The Catch of The Day

Now that you have your prize fish in your hands and are ready to prepare it for the table, there are some steps you should take to remove parts of the body that are prone to storing toxins, such as:

  • The internal organs, particularly the kidneys and the liver. Organs that clean and process blood are natural toxin storage areas for a fish, so avoid eating them when possible.
  • The skin. I know that this is near sacrilege to some cooks, but the skin should always be removed from any fish you eat to reduce toxin levels.
  • The fat. Yes, even the fat must go in order to keep your fish as reasonably “clean” as possible. Not only does fat store poisons when fresh, but it seals it in when the fish is cooked as well so it is vital to get the fat off of the fish.
  • The head. Lots of blood needs to be pumped to the brain and as such toxins will be strongly present in all the small vessels in the head of the fish. Do not eat any part of the head.

Be aware that these steps will help with most poisons except for mercury, since that deadly substance also tends to reside in the fish’s tissues which you are going to eat. Generally speaking most fish have a little mercury in them that is in too small an amount to harm you, but a fish that is loaded with it is always deadly to a survival fisherman.

When Cooking

For best results, eat only a few fried or deep fat fried fish and try to mainly consume roasted, smoked or baked fish instead. Frying tends to seal in toxins, so it increases the risk of consuming a harmful amount of toxins. Sadly, for similar reasons the drippings should also be reduced or eliminated entirely from the cooking process. Furthermore, you should make a point of preparing and cooking the fish as soon as possible, since that reduces the chance of toxins spreading out from the head, liver, kidneys etc and into the tissues of the fish.

Fishing is a simple, easy way to acquire healthy food so long as your catch is safe to eat. Take the time to learn the safe rivers, proper fish selection, and cooking techniques in order to reduce the risk of consuming a deadly meal.

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