Bulletin #4271, Food Safety on the Water

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person holding up a live lobster with banded clawsBy Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension professor, nutrition and food safety, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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If boating, fishing, or being at the beach is your favorite summertime activity, the last thing you want is a food-borne illness. But you, and others, could be taking some chances. Too much sun and heat can make perishable food (food that can spoil) dangerous. Perishable picnic foods and fish you catch to eat must be handled with care. Otherwise they can become contaminated with bacteria and cause food poisoning. Remember:

  • Perishable foods, like lunch meats, cooked chicken, and potato or pasta salads, should be kept in a cooler.
  • Pack your cooler with several inches of ice, or use frozen gel-packs.
  • Store food in water-tight containers to prevent contact with melting ice water.
  • Keep the cooler away from the sun and covered with a blanket, if possible, for further insulation.
  • If you don’t have a cooler, try freezing sandwiches for your outing. Use coarse-textured breads that don’t get soggy when thawed. Take the mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato with you to add at mealtime.
  • If you bring a cooler, keep the lid closed as much as possible. Store soft drinks and nonperishable favorites in another cooler.
  • Put perishables back on ice as soon as you finish eating. Don’t let food sit out while you swim or fish. Food sitting at outside temperatures for more than two hours is not safe. At 90°F or above, food should not sit out over one hour. At high temperatures, food spoils quickly. If you have any doubts, throw it out!
  • Not all foods need refrigeration. Some good non-perishable foods for boat trips are fresh fruits and vegetables, nut and trail mix, canned meat spreads, peanut butter, and jelly. (Once canned meats are opened, put them in the cooler.)

Storing Fish Safely


  • Scale, gut and clean fish as soon as they are caught.
  • Live fish can be kept on stringers or in live wells, as long as they have enough water and mobility to breathe.
  • Wrap both whole and cleaned fish in water-tight plastic and store on ice.
  • Keep three to four inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler. Alternate layers of fish and ice.
  • Store the cooler out of the sun and cover with a blanket.
  • Back at home, eat fresh fish in one to two days or freeze it. For the best quality, use frozen fish in three to six months.


  • For safety, crabs, lobsters, and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked. Store in live wells or out of water in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap.
  • Crabs and lobster are best eaten the day they’re caught. Live oysters should be cooked in seven to 10 days; mussels and clams in four to five days.

(CAUTION: Everyone should be aware of the potential dangers of eating raw shellfish. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems should not do so. Pay attention to any health advisories from the Maine Department of Health concerning fish consumption.)

At the Beach

  • Keep your menu simple and take only the amount of food you will use. Plan some take-along foods that do not require refrigeration—like hard cheese, fruits, and dried meats. Pack perishables in a cooler.
  • If grilling is your thing, check ahead to make sure your beach area allows outdoor cooking. Consider buying your perishable food at a store near the beach and putting it in an ice-filled cooler and keep it until ready to cook. Fish is done if it flakes when pierced with a fork.
  • Ready-made sandwiches or cooked foods are fine, too. Just put them in the cooler until you’re ready to eat.
  • At home, pack right from the refrigerator. Freeze sandwiches ahead and add tomatoes, lettuce and mayonnaise later. Use an insulated cooler or frozen gel-packs to keep the temperature inside the cooler under 40°F. Note: Large blocks of ice melt more slowly than cubes.
  • Put all perishables in one cooler; keep beverages and plain water in a separate cooler. This keeps the perishable food safer because the drinks cooler is opened more.
  • When you’ve found the perfect spot—preferably away from trash containers (real magnets for flies and bees)—put the coolers under a beach umbrella and cover them with blankets. Or partially bury the coolers in the sand, again shading them with a blanket and umbrella.
  • Make sure everyone washes his or her hands before handling food or eating. Moist towelettes or washcloths in resealable bags are good when running water is not available.
  • Put perishable foods back in the cooler right after eating. Do not let them sit out, even under the umbrella, while you go for a swim. Perishable foods left out of refrigeration for over two hours (or one hour if the outside temperature is above 90°F), are not safe and should be thrown out.
  • If insects are a problem, there are netting devices to place over food to keep it bug-free. Do not spray insect repellents away from the food.
  • When buying food at the beach, make sure the food stand you choose looks clean and well managed, and that the hot foods are served hot and cold foods are served cold. Do not eat something that a food vendor has left in the hot sun.

Reference: Food News for Consumers, Vol. 9, No.2, 1992; Dianne Durant, USDA; Barbara O’Brien, USDA.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2004

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