Seafood Safety

Seafood Safety

An essential component of seafood marketing is maintaining safe, high quality products. Seafood is highly perishable, and if not handled and prepared correctly, it can lead to foodborne illnesses when it is consumed. Demand for local seafood has grown, in part, because consumers believe locally caught seafood is fresher, is less chemically contaminated, and is of higher quality than imported products. While this increased demand for local product is beneficial for alternative seafood marketing efforts, fishermen need to remain diligent about seafood safety.

Ensuring Safe Seafood

Maintaining a safe seafood product requires caring for the product from the time it is caught until it is consumed; that responsibility doesn’t end at the point of sale. Local, state and federal food safety regulations require that fishermen – just like others in the seafood supply chain – be aware of and use proper handling and storage practices to ensure a safe product. They also should educate consumers about handling seafood safely at home, including correctly refrigerating and cooking their food and avoiding accidental cross-contamination of cooked food with raw products. Many foodborne illnesses have resulted from such mishandling of seafood. See resources below for links to information on seafood handling, storage and other practices for seafood producers and consumers for ensuring safe seafood.  

Keeping seafood safe is critical to the long-term success
of seafood alternative markets.

Key Steps to Take

Fishermen can take several steps to ensure safe seafood. First, they must learn about and use best handling and sanitation practices for the seafood they are selling and the type of market they are using. Guidance can be obtained from local, state and federal agencies involved in regulating seafood safety  (see Permits and More). Second, they also should learn about seafood safety, and obtain training and certifications as required. These requirements vary with the product form (e.g., raw, minimally processed, fully cooked) and the type of alternative market used to sell the seafood (see Rules and Regulations below). Here we highlight some strategies for preventing, eliminating or reducing certain risks, rules and regulations for managing seafood safety, and training resources. 

Seafood Safety Management

Sanitation control is a critical component of safe handling practices. Fishermen must develop a sanitation management program that includes procedures for maintaining the cleanliness of work clothing, work areas, and equipment and utensils. Fishermen should contact the county health department to learn specific sanitation requirements for the alternative market they will be operating.

Temperature control is critical for maintaining the quality of seafood and reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Regulations require seafood be held at temperatures no higher than 40° F, but maintaining unfrozen seafood as close as possible to 32° F is ideal, and can be achieved by using ice, refrigeration or both. Histamine poisoning is one of the most common foodborne illnesses, and proper temperature control (as close to 32° F) is the key to preventing it. 

Vacuum-packaged seafood can cause serious foodborne illness when the product is not handled correctly and then consumed. Commercial marine species naturally contain a type of bacteria, which produces a deadly toxin at temperatures as low as 38° F, and can cause botulism. If seafood is being vacuum-packed, it should be frozen immediately, and stored and sold frozen to prevent the organism from growing in the package. Note, some states (e.g., California) require seafood be fully frozen before it is vacuum packaged. Consumers should keep the packaged fish frozen until time of use, then thaw it in the refrigerator with the package opened or removed. Never hold refrigerated or distribute vacuum-packaged, raw seafood at temperatures above 37° F.  

Rules and Regulations

In December 1995, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that all seafood processors, packers and distributors – including fishermen that take on these roles -- become certified in Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point (HACCP) seafood safety management. HACCP requires anyone processing, packing and distributing seafood to control, monitor and document critical points in their operation where seafood is at risk for a biological, chemical or physical hazard that could cause illness or injury to consumers.

Fishermen who process their catch -- beyond heading, eviscerating or freezing intended solely to prepare fish for holding onboard the harvest vessel -- and sell to businesses that resell the product (e.g., seafood retail markets, restaurants, school or hospital cafeterias) must obtain certification in HACCP management through FDA-approved training courses. Such requirements apply to fishermen that cut fish into steaks or fillets and/or provide product that can be eaten without further cooking (e.g., smoked, canned, seafood pâtés) and sell to these intermediary businesses. 

Also, fishermen selling direct to consumers and providing product that can be eaten without further cooking (e.g., smoked, canned, seafood pâtés) must comply with their state's rules for safe and sanitary handling and production. These rules often are consistent with federal HACCP requirements and HACCP training likely will be required, being mandated in some states (e.g., California) for this situation. 


Fishermen may be exempt from HACCP when they only maintain their catch whole, headed, eviscerated (cleaned and gutted), and/or frozen onboard their vessel and then deliver their catch to businesses that resell the product.

Fishermen also may be exempt from the HACCP regulation when they maintain their catch headed, eviscerated (cleaned and gutted), and/or frozen onboard their vessel and/or cut it into steaks or fillets and then sell their products directly to consumers

Fishermen should check with their state's department of health and/or food inspection division to determine whether these exemptions apply to them.

Education and Training

Fishermen can obtain seafood safety information and training from various sources. Information and guidance about and rules regarding seafood safety are provided in many online documents, including downloadable brochures that fishermen can provide to their customers (see Resources below). 

To obtain HACCP training and certification, fishermen can take Basic Seafood HACCP, an FDA-approved course developed by the National Seafood HACCP Alliance for Training and Education. The course covers the principles of HACCP and the use of the FDA’s Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guide. Fishermen can select one of two training options:

 1.  Attending a 3-day Basic Seafood HACCP course, which is offered at locations in several states at various times during the year through the Association of Food and Drug Officials.

 2.  Taking the Basic Seafood HACCP course in two segments: ​​

  • Segment I, a self-paced online training available through Cornell University. This segment covers the first 2 days of the 3-day course.
  • Segment II, a 1-day, hands-on training that is taken after completing the online training (Segment 1). This segment is offered at varied times and places, and may require participants to travel to another state to complete the training. Completion of both segments is required for certification. 


Also see Resources: HACCP & Seafood Safety.

Seafood Safety & Quality Guidance
OR State University, Cornell University, the Universities of DE, RI, FL & CA and the Community Seafood Initiative. Provides downloadable brochures, nutritional facts and food safety information for consumers.
Seafood Quality Guidelines.
California Seafood Council.
Seafood Safety: General Information.
OR State University, Cornell University, the Universities of DE, RI, FL & CA and the Community Seafood Initiative.
Why Seafood Spoils
OR State University Seafood Network Information Center.


Examples of Seafood HACCP Plans.
OR State University Seafood Network Information Center.
Questions and Answers for Guidance to Facilitate the Implementation of a HACCP System in Seafood Processing
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Seafood HACCP.
Association of Food and Drug Officials and the Seafood HACCP Alliance. Provides background information and offers training courses for HACCP programs and related Sanitation Control Procedures.

Additional permits and other documentation usually are needed to establish an alternative market. Be sure to consult with resource management, public health and business authorities before selling your seafood.

Information provided on this page was synthesized from interviews with fishermen and buyers, and from the Fishermen’s Direct Marketing Manual, the Small Farm and Direct Marketing Handbook, ATTRA publications, and other resources (see About this Website and Resources).