Can You Eat Raw Fish to Survive?


raw salmon with lime wedges on top

Sometimes it’s easier to catch fish than it is to get a fire going. It’s really tempting to just go ahead and eat it raw since it’s not only a great morale boost to get some meat, but all bodies require protein to repair muscles. With that being said, being unable to thoroughly cook meat can present health hazards and food poisoning. But what about raw fish?

Raw saltwater fish is generally safe to eat while raw freshwater fish is often not. This is because saltwater helps kill off many of the common parasites and bacteria that are harmful to humans. Even so, you should not eat raw fish every day and should always cook it when possible.

Now let’s cover how to choose which types of fish to eat raw, some of the risks associated with raw fish, and how it should be prepared before consuming it.

What Types of Fish Are Unsafe to Eat Raw?

Pretty much any freshwater fish is unsafe to eat. Without the surrounding salt, the water is much more likely to harbor parasites like tapeworms which fish easily pick up. Freshwater bodies are also more susceptible to human contamination and other sources of pollution.

While all types of fish are going contain at least minute amounts of mercury larger fish are more likely to have higher levels of mercury which can build up in your body and can cause a myriad of cognitive disorders like hallucinations, cognition loss, and tremors.

What Are the Risks of Eating Raw Fish?

It can be tempting to skip the time-consuming and sometimes difficult process of making a fire and just dig into your freshly caught raw fish. But consider some of the hazards before you take a bite:

  • Tapeworms are common in freshwater fish. If you’re lucky you may not experience any symptoms but if you’re in a survival situation do you really want to have a parasite stealing your hard-earned nutrients? If you’re unlucky, expect diarrhea and fatigue.
  • Roundworms are another common parasite that can even survive in some species of saltwater fish. And while they won’t live very long inside you they often cause your immune system to kick into overdrive to purge them. Again, in a survival situation, the last thing you need to experience is vomiting and intestinal pain.
  • On the microscopic scale, we have bacteria like listeria. Usually, listeria will only cause its flu-like symptoms in those with weakened immune systems like children and the elderly. However, the longer you’re out in the wild, the more susceptible you’ll be to this strain of bacteria.
  • E. Coli and salmonella are also common, even in the fish you can buy in grocery stores can carry these bacteria under improper storage and handling conditions. Expect classic food poisoning symptoms like cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea which are annoying and usually harmless when you have access to a clean and stress-less environment. But can be life-threatening when other complications are compounded.

Preparing Raw Fish for Consumption

When catching fish in the wild you want to ensure that the quality of the fish is good. Just because it’s out in nature doesn’t mean that it’s still good to eat. Again with freshwater fish are more at risk for being exposed to pollution and other toxins and all fish have some mercury. But when you cook the fish before eating it you can reduce these contaminants by up to 60%!

5 Steps to Preparing Raw Fish:

  1. Check to make sure that the flesh is still firm, lacks any discoloration, and doesn’t display any visible tears or damage. Milky eyes, slimy skin, and dull-colored gills are also signs that your fish may not be suitable for eating. And of course, if your fish smells bad, it’s no longer good to eat.
  2. You’re going to want to first remove as many of the scales as possible using the back of a knife to scrape against them with just enough pressure not to bruise the flesh. You can also use a flat and sharp rock if you don’t have the proper tools available.
  3. For all fish, you should remove the gills, fins, and any fish longer than 4 inches should be gutted.
  4. With your sharp tool cut from the tail to the neck to open the body cavity.
  5. You should then be able to easily remove the guts with little resistance. When removing the guts be careful not to puncture any internal organs as this can contaminate the rest of the flesh and require additional cleaning.

You may also want to keep the guts to use as bait in traps and snares which will be easier and cleaner to transport if they’re left intact.

Methods of Cooking Raw Fish

Now that we’ve established that cooked fish is almost certainly not the best way to eat it let’s discuss some ways to cook your fish.

The classic method is to simply spear it with a stick and then roast it over an open fire. While this can work in a pinch you, unfortunately, lose a lot of the water content as well as the highly nutritious and tasty oils and fat.

  • Boiling – Boiling your fish allows you to not only cook the fish but can produce a nutritious broth that can be used to flavor other foods.
  • Baking – If done properly you can bake your fish in mud or clay. Pack your fish into a mud or clay ball and place into a bed of coals until the clay becomes hard and cracked. If you’ve done it correctly when you remove the clay you’ll also remove the skin and scales at the same time! The flesh should come off in flakes, otherwise, you took the fish out too early. Remember, in a survival situation it’s better to overcook your food rather than undercook it.
  • Smoking – For long-term storage consider smoking the fish over a fire. By removing as much moisture from the fish as possible you prevent bacteria from being able to survive on the fish. This allows you to consume it at your convenience at a later time or when food is less bountiful. Don’t forget to remove the head and the spine before smoking as there’s nothing to eat there takes up space and slows down the smoking process of the rest of the fish.

How Japanese Sashimi Is Different

Japanese sashimi is safe to eat for 2 reasons.

  1. Location – You’ll notice that most fish served in Japanese restaurants include saltwater fish like tuna, sea bream, and sea bass. That’s because living in saltwater naturally helps kill and prevent bacteria growth.
  2. Sashimi is flash-frozen – Flash freezing kills off any bacteria or parasites that may have survived. Now if you’re stranded somewhere you’re unlikely to be able to sufficiently freeze a fish to make it completely safe to eat. With that being said you’ll probably be able to get away with eating saltwater fish raw in limited quantities but I wouldn’t recommend a constant diet of raw saltwater fish for extended periods of time.

You’ll also want to make sure that you eat your fish as soon as possible. This is another reason why Aboriginal tribes in northern climates are able to safely consume raw seafood because the meat is in a frigid environment that slows down bacterial growth and eating it immediately gives the fish minimal time to foster bacteria.

Bottom Line

When surviving in the wild it can be difficult to determine if the plants you foraged are safe to eat and eventually most people will tire of a vegetarian diet. This makes raw fish an attractive option when available and there is no fire possible.

So if you’re unable to cook a fish you’ve caught and the situation is desperate you can get away with small portions of raw saltwater or coldwater fish but in almost every scenario I recommend that you thoroughly cook your fish to reduce the chance of illness from bacteria and parasites and poisoning from pollutants.

Related Questions

Is it safe to eat raw tuna? Like many saltwater fish, tuna is generally safe to eat raw even if it wasn’t frozen beforehand. However, you would not want to eat raw tuna every day but it is usually okay sporadically and in small quantities.

What is the safest fish to eat raw? Salmon is well-known to be the safest (and one of the tastiest) common fish to eat raw. However, if it has spent any time in freshwater all bets are off and it should instead be cooked.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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