What to do with a dead fish

I’m looking for suggestions here. I’m not talking about the filets – I know what to do with those. But I need some help dealing with the carcasses.

We are overrun with fish carcasses, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Right now, we’ve got primarily striped bass frames, which are 30-40 inches long, but we’re limited to four of them per outing. Later in the season, we’ll have bluefish carcasses, which are smaller but more numerous – on a good day, we can come home with 20.

The last couple of years, we’ve used most of the carcasses for lobster bait, but Hurricane Irene swept our pots away, and we’ve decided not to replace them this year since we’re desperately overscheduled already. So now what?

And don’t tell me fish fumet. That’s for when you have a couple of delicate flounder frames, not when you have twenty pounds of carcass.

We’ve tried to use some as fertilizer, but they don’t break down very quickly when they’re left whole. And chopping them up is a monstrous, smelly job. Ever tried to clean a Sawzall after you’ve used it to cut up a fish? It’s all but impossible – the thing will reek for months.

So I am soliciting suggestions. I hate to put them in a plastic bag and take them to the dump, but I’ll do it if I have to.

38 people are having a conversation about “What to do with a dead fish

  1. My uncle, who typically only has one or two fish carcasses at a time, usually takes them for a hike into the woods using a 5-gallon bucket, and leaves them for coyotes and other critters to enjoy.

    Also, have you ever used striped-bass cheeks? A choice piece of fish flesh.

  2. I don’t have any great ideas for you, but I’m fascinated by the fileting technique. No gutting, no mess! (I guess that’s why you call the leftovers “frames,” a term I’d never heard before.)

    This probably wouldn’t work as well with the small, bony freshwater fish I catch. For smaller fish, I’d hate to waste any little bit of meat up behind the head and along the front of the rib cage. But in comparison to the total amount of meat on these big, meaty stripers, that’s probably insignificant.

    How about using the frames for bear bait? Could make for some great photos on your varmint cam.

  3. We don’t always compost our organic waste, so we often dig a hole and dump it in with dog waste from the yard. It’s not exactly efficient, but it’s also not going to the land fill.

  4. I’m with chiggerbrithches, because I have heard they are great for garden soil. Then again, I trust anyone who comments here to know more than I do about this…
    My information comes from a very elderly woman from Providence, Rhode Island who grew vegetables and fished to survive the Depression. She tells me all kinds of great stories about how they made the most from the least. (Her mother made her school dresses from flour sacks one year). She often talked wistfully about how great their vegetable garden was when they’d bury the bones in the soil…

  5. Tovar, we have eaten the cheeks, and I sometimes take them. But when I have a lot of fish to process, I often don’t. It always feels like a waste, but I have to figure out where the point of diminishing returns is for fish vs. time and hassle. Which is why …

    Patti S. — I do sometimes make stock, but I just have much too much. And …

    Al — I don’t gut them, and it is SO much easier. For bluefish we’re going to grill or smoke, I don’t even scale them. Small fish like scup or sea bass or trout, I generally cook whole and so I do have to gut them. But if you’re going to filet it, there’s no need, even for small fish (I filet mackerel whole). And, as much as I love the bear bait idea because I always need new material for the VarmintCam, I’ll have to move somewhere that has bears for that to work.

    Chigger, Jody, and Marge — I think burying them is the right idea. You get the same benefit as composting, but you don’t have to wait for the damn things to decompose. Burying them where we’re planning to grow something seems like an awful good idea.

    Amanda — Craigslist? You think? Only problem is that you have to get rid of them pretty damn fast or you have a stinky mess on your hands.

    David — We have a fire pit in which we could certainly burn them. Is there a particular advantage to fish ash, or is it just a convenient way to reduce them to something disposable?

  6. you used them as free lobster bait. someone else uses them for garden enrichment. post the right CL ad and you’ll have someone willing to come pick em up whenever you have them.

  7. I’d try to bokashi them. In a few weeks, they’d be broken down and you could compost or bury them without worrying about animals or bad smells.

  8. With salmon I feed some of our carcasses to the dogs, bury some, throw some away. Depends on the day, if you get my drift.

    • I was going to add that we do give some to our chickens, but they only like theirs cooked and I don’t always feel like cooking for the girls, especially in the warmer months. They WILL pick a carcass clean leaving only hard bone behind.

  9. I was wondering if you could feed them to the chickens. We give ours left over lobster and clam shells. I don’t know if that amount of fish would make the eggs fishy. We do eat ALOT of clams , but we don’t always give the them all the left over shells, most go in the driveway. Maybe you could feed them some and bury the rest.

    • We buy a local feed made with salmon, barley and kelp and our eggs never taste fishy, although I do not know the proportion of fish in the mix.

  10. Okay, this one is going to require a strong stomach, but I would be tempted for find a barrel with a well-fitted lid, and throw the carcasses in leaving enough headroom for expansion as it rots, seal it up and let it sit for about 6 months to a year. Once it has totally rotted, strain it and use it diluted as liquid fertilizer.

  11. Yep, bury ’em. It’s salmon and tuna out here, but that’s what we do with whatever doesn’t become crab bait. Just bury it deep enough so the beasties can’t get to it and then plant a nitrogen hog with deep roots (popcorn for us). I have yet to see any evidence of the carcasses when tilling the following year, and we’ve never had a pest problem.

  12. I don’ t think garum would work, because the carcasses are so big. If you cover small fish with salt, it penetrates the whole carcass, but I think these would rot from the inside, and not ferment properly.

    Composting seems like the best idea. I had to look up bokashi, but it sounds a lot like what we did with our pile of pig poop. We added a container of Rid-X, the stuff you put in septic systems to break down — ahem — organic matter.

    We’d need a really big barrel, and we’d have to flip a coin to see who opens it to add the new carcasses!

    Burying is looking better and better.

  13. For the lot you have now, bury for sure. Whenever you have the desire to play with a shovel or a need to enrich the soil, bury it.
    But if you know you won’t be able/willing to bury after a given fishing trip, you could post a Craigslist ad before you go fishing, stating when people could come and pick up the bait bounty. Then, once the bounty has been taken, you pull the ad from CL, and voila, fish gone. In the future, you just pull up the old ad, edit for date/time of pickup, and post.

  14. How about fish head soup? I’ve always heard it was extremely healthy, and this article makes it sound tasty too. http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/02/the-nasty-bits-fish-head-soup-offal-recipe.html

    It really seems a shame to waste so much of the fish. As far as fertilizer, it is good for corn (as Rachel mentioned). The Indians used to plant one fish carcass under each hill of corn seeds – but your local raccoons would probably dig them up. Google searches on fish fertilizer mention using a lidded bucket and sugar, and stirring it regularly (ick). It also mentions adding seaweed.

    I would try tossing one in the chicken pen and see how it goes. Chickens probably will enjoy the protein and the dead fish will attract insects which the chickens really love. Whatever is left can be shoveled into the compost pile later. If this works you can freeze some carcasses and make sure the chicks have a steady supply.

    Probably I would make fish head soup with heads, slit the belly of the rest and throw it to the chickens. And get a plastic barrel to toss the extras in, with a lid that will keep out animals. Good luck … adding more projects to your list!!

    • That soup does sound good. Thanks for the link.

      The chickens don’t seem to be all that interested in the fish frames. We put a couple of them on top of the compost pile, and the girls gave a few desultory pecks and moved on.

      I know you’re right about the bucket with the lid, but you’re also right about the ick. We do plenty of disgusting things around here, and I don’t know if I can bring myself to add that one to the list.

  15. Stripers and Blues are fantastic Lobster bait. I’d freeze them, two or three per bag, craiglist them,
    someone will def call. Then you can dicker about how many lobsters they’ll give for the next bag.

  16. Can you use the carcasses as chum? Since the fish didn’t die of infection, surely it’s fine to dump the bodies well off shore? If you could fillet them at sea ….but maybe the combination of a filleting knife and a swell would make that a risky business.

  17. I’ve always found that the fish head is one of the tastiest parts of the fish. The meat around the “shoulder” and the jaw and the cheeks is super flavorful. Some fish head, some good noodles in a clear broth and some greens and you have a great dinner.

  18. Okay, I’m coming around to freezing and CLing as lobster bait. Striped bass aren’t the favorites of lobster people, but bluefish make great bait.

    But first, I will definitely do a couple of heads. I wish these particular heads were just a little big smaller — the big stripers have heads the size of footballs — but I’ll just have to get used to giant heads in a pot.

    Franinoz, I’m not allowed to filet them at sea, because the environmental police need to be able to check that my catch is legal. I would filet them at the dock, but there’s no running water, and we generally have a lot to do when we take the boat out. Still, I think I will keep a fish scaler on the boat so I can at least get part of the job done.

  19. I read a book by Wallace Kaufman called ‘Coming Out of the Woods’ about his move back to the land, building his own house in NC and trying to live with nature. There was a particular chapter called The Bean Patch that always stayed with me, detailing his attempt to enrich his veg garden by burying fish carcases and planting beans on top, a technique he associated with Native Americans.

    Overnight, every scavenging creature had visited his yard, unearthed the fish frames, tore up his plants, strewn the debris everywhere, deposited their fecal thanks, and left him the smelly mess to clear up (he said “the odor of dead fish hung like a plague”. )

    I have no advice I’m afraid. I love the craigslist idea – best laugh I’ve had all day. If I found myself with that many fish frames to deal with, I’m ashamed to say I would probably put them on our bonfire, which is maybe not the most eco-friendly option. But it does return the nutrients to the soil sans plague smell!

  20. I was going to suggest burying them or Bokashi-ing them, but love the fact you could put them on CL!

    Putting them in a Bokashi bin is supposed to alter the smell, so that they are no longer so appealing to scavengers (as well as speeding up decomposition) but I have to say my compost-eating dog Mabel would also quite happily work her way through a Bokashi bin given the chance.

    Bokashi works out very expensive if you buy the proper impregnated bran- I fermented sheets of newspaper in live yogurt whey (which you then dry- you don’t have to store soggy sheets of newspaper) which was free (whey as a by-product of making labneh from homemade yogurt and newspapers rescued from my parents recycling bin).

    The liquid that drains from the Bokashi bucket can be used like septic tank opener to unblock drains or speed up composting of something else (like pig poo) or diluted and used as a plant feed/tonic.

  21. Stephen Andrew says:

    I bury them under things I won’t soon be digging up. My roses, hydrangeas, clematis, and peonies all can attribute their striking beauty to nasty, rotten fish right under their feet. I bury approximately one foot deep. Never had anything dig for it, nor do I ever have to see or smell the fish again. And I know you don’t need for me to remind you just how magically fish work as fertilizer. But, I will. I took a 55 year old rose bush from my grandparents house that hadn’t bloomed in years. Worried it might be too old to save, coupled with transplant shock (which I did on a sweltering day in July–knowing better doesn’t always mean doing better) I buried several fish under its’ new home. This year the blooms are truly spectacular, the stems are thick and rich emerald green, and despite how terrible I’m sure those fish smell right about now the fragrance of my roses are heavenly!

  22. You could get a pig! They will eat anything, fish carcasses included, and then you won’t have to import fancy pig poop. On the other hand, selling them frozen for bait sounds a lot easier.

  23. Two thoughts.
    1. Tim Friary at Cape Cod Organic Farm will undoubtedly take them off your hands. He’s always looking for frames to plant (and has considered cutting fish just to have the racks).

    2. I can check with the conch and lobstermen out here to see if anyone would like them. I’ll get back to you.

  24. You’ve heard me rave about my neighbor in Jacksonville’s garden- super dark brown gorgeous soil while the rest of us dealt with mostly sand.

    He composted leaves in situ, and fertilized with fish guts, which is actually appropriate, given that he was part Creek Indian. The trick to keeping the raccoons from digging it back up is to cover it with wood ash.

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