Editor’s note: This column by Michelle Jarvie was originally published by the Michigan State University Service and is reprinted here with permission.

When I think of fall and the leaves start to turn, I think salmon fishing. September often marks the beginning of the fall pacific salmon migration in the Great Lakes.

Depending on where you are, there are three species available — king or chinook, coho, and in some places, pink. These fish have spent the majority of their lives out in the big lakes feeding, and are now returning to rivers and streams for reproduction.

Dan O’Keefe, working with the Michigan Sea Grant program, holds a male Chinook salmon during spawning season on the Pere Marquette River.

Males and females migrate into the rivers and look for ideal gravelly areas to spawn. Once they spawn, their life cycle is complete and they die.

What does any of this have to do with food safety? Well, it turns out that almost as soon as these salmon enter the river systems, their bodies start breaking down. They stop feeding, and all of their energy is put into the reproduction process.

Sometimes you’ll see fish laying on redds, the term for where they lay their eggs, that have large portions of their body already “rotting” away, but their drive to reproduce is so strong that they will try until the very end.

If you are fishing and catch one of these “rotters,” and decide to take it home to eat, it can cause some food safety concerns.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following tips to keep your catch safe this fall:

  • Avoid keeping fish that have visible decay, as their flesh may contain a higher number of bacteria than a fresher fish.
  • Keep the fish alive as long as possible. These salmon, especially if they are showing any visible signs of decay, are covered in bacteria, including their mouths. Keep your hands away from their teeth. Two hours or less between catching and cleaning is preferable to reduce additional bacteria growth.
  • Clean and cool the fish as soon as possible. The flesh will continue deteriorating as soon as the fish leaves the water. Have a cooler of ice ready to store your cleaned fish.
  • Make sure to use clean, potable water for rinsing cleaned fish. Keep cleaned fish on ice until further processing.
  • Use clean utensils when preparing fish.
  • If you’re not eating the fish right away, properly can, freeze or smoke your catch to preserve it. For more information on these processes, visit the MSU Extension website.
  • When cooking fish, always make sure to cook to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F.
  • Never eat raw or undercooked fish. Freezing or cooking fish kills most harmful pathogens, but there are bacteria and parasites that can survive the freezing process.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water before and after handling fish.

Fall is a great time to get out there and stock up on healthy proteins found in our local fish populations, but be sure that the fish you catch is handled safely along the way to prevent foodborne illness.

Michelle Jarvie

About the author: Michelle Jarvie is an educator with the Michigan State University Extension Service. Her areas of focus include food safety and nutrition.

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