Asking For A Friend: Should fish smell fishy?

Whether it’s salmon, trout, tilapia or herring, fresh fish has vibrant colour, shiny texture and a sweet smell.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read December 3, 2021

Signs of freshness include firmly connected scales, as well as bright, red and moist gills. GETTY

Dear Asking For A Friend,  

I am currently having a debate with my mother over how to tell the freshness of fish. I believe that you should never be able to smell a raw piece of fish if it is fresh. She says that all fish smells fishy and that it’s the cook’s job to clean it properly before cooking. Can you help put this argument to rest? 

Signed, Fish Freshness  


Dear Fish Freshness,  

Fresh fish is an excellent source of protein also rich in vitamins and nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to regulate blood pressure and improve heart and brain health. Dietary guidelines recommend at least two servings of fish per week to reap the maximum benefits of its nutritional value. Whether it’s salmon, trout, tilapia or herring, fresh fish has vibrant colour, shiny texture and a sweet smell. If there’s a strong musty or yeasty odour, it’s well past its prime.  

“Seafood must have colour that catches your eye and should never smell fishy or off,” says Angelo Tamburello, owner of Waterfront Seafood Market Limited. “Your nose will know.” 

While odour is a reliable factor in determining the state of the fish, Tamburello says that there are other things you’ll need to look for. Signs of freshness also include firmly connected scales, as well as bright, red and moist gills. If you’re looking at the whole fish, the eyes should be “clear and somewhat bulging,” not bloodshot or sunken. Dull or faded gills that ooze milky liquid are also not a sign of freshness. A simple finger test where you press down on a piece of fish can help determine whether it’s fresh or stale: if your fingerprint quickly disappears and the flesh bounces back it’s a good sign, but if your fingerprint stays on the fish, it’s probably past its shelf life. 

How long does fish stay fresh?
It is possible to bring home perfectly fresh fish from a seafood market and for it to then go bad because it wasn’t stored properly, or because it wasn’t cooked within the recommended 36 hours of purchase. To preserve freshness, ask your fishmonger to pack fish in a bag of crushed ice and immediately place it in the coldest part of the fridge when you get it home. To store, experts suggest rinsing the fresh fillets, drying them with paper towel, putting each piece in a freezer bag and placing them in a container with a layer of crushed ice underneath and on top of the fish. If you’re buying more than one piece of fish at a time, ask for them to be packed separately to help minimize exposure to moisture, which can degrade and spoil fish very quickly.  

Consuming spoiled or rotten fish may lead to scombroid food poisoning, which typically starts within 10 to 60 minutes after eating. Symptoms, including flushed skin, headache, blurred vision, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, may linger for 48 hours. It is also possible that eating spoiled fish may exasperate respiratory symptoms for people with asthma.  

Although it’s rare, there is also risk of contracting ciguatera fish poisoning. Ciguatera is a toxin found in contaminated tropical and subtropical seafood and may cause chills, fever, muscle aches, sensitivity to light and/or joint pain. Ciguatera fish poisoning usually occurs within 30 minutes of consuming contaminated fish and symptoms may last up to 17 hours. 

When it comes to seafood, knowing what to look for is just as important as asking the right questions at the time of purchase. Don’t be afraid to ask about freshness, what’s currently in season, where the fish comes from and whether it’s farmed or wild. Ask for alternatives if you’re looking for a less expensive seafood option — they’re the experts who can help to ensure you have the best seafood served on your table every time.   

“Trust your seafood retailer,” says Tamburello.  

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Maja Begovic is a freelance writer for Healthing. She can be reached here.

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