A Boater's Guide to Food Safety

Out on the boat at last, you're looking forward to diving, swimming, or catching some fish. The last thing you want is foodborne illness.

But like a lot of boaters, you could be taking some chances. Too much sun and heat can make some perishable food dangerous.

Perishable picnic foods and your catch must be handled with care. Mishandled food can become contaminated with bacteria and cause food poisoning.

Staying Safe

Bessie Berry, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline, explains how to protect yourself.

  • 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 out of the sun, covered, if possible, for further insulation.

Tricks of the Trade

Not all foods need refrigeration, and Berry suggests that some good non-perishables for boat trips are fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, trail-mix, canned meat spreads and yes, peanut butter and jelly. (Once canned meats are opened, put them in the cooler.)

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 non-perishable favorites in another case.


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 90ยบ 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!

Keeping the Catch

Check first with your fish and game agency or state health department to see where you can fish safely, then follow these guidelines.


  • Ice the fish as soon as they're caught.
  • 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.
  • Once home, eat fresh fish in one to two days or freeze. For top 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 lobsters are best eaten the day they're caught. Live oysters should be cooked in seven to ten 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.

This article was adapted from the USDA Extension Service document FS062.