fish smells fishy is it bad

The question, “If my fish smells fishy is it bad?” has always been a talking point for most fish lovers. Have you ever wondered why some fish smell fishy?

When your fish begins to develop a fishy smell, you may not know the cause of it or whether the fish is still good for consumption.

But in this article, we will be looking at some reasons why fish might start developing fishy smells and possible ways to fix such problems.

When fish starts to smell fishy, it can mean it has begun to go bad. But that doesn’t mean the fish is completely spoiled. 

The Scientific Evidence Behind Fishy Smells In Dead Fish

scientific evidence fish smells

Scientific research has shown that fish contain an analyte known as trimethylamine oxide.

After death, the trimethylamine compound is broken down by bacteria.

This causes it to turn into stinky trimethylamine, which in turn causes the fish to develop a fishy odor or smell.

When a fish dies, the body continues to produce trimethylamine oxide, which, after being acted upon by bacteria, continues to produce that awful smell we perceive.

There seem to be other compounds that make fish smell fishy, but triethylamine appears to be the most important.

It’s what makes frozen or cooked fish still have a bit of a smell despite being preserved.

Note: The fishy smell is caused by bacteria found on fish, not by the fish itself.

These are a few methods to help prevent your fresh fish from developing a fishy smell.

Method #1: Clean The Fish Before Eating

clean the fish before eating

Clean the fish with water thoroughly before cooking it. This process helps to remove any bacteria that cause the fish to smell.

Using a knife or other sharp object, remove all the scales present on the body of the fish.

Method #2: Marinate The Fish In Lemon Juice Or Vinegar

When you clean the fish but the smell continues, marinate it in lemon juice or vinegar for a delicious flavor.

It is not recommended to marinate fish in lemon juice for an extended period, but you can marinate fish for 1 hour.

This method also helps in the killing of bacteria in the fish.

Note: The presence of a compound called triethylamine is the science behind why fish smell.

If My Fish Smells Fishy Is It Bad?

a smelly fish is it bad

Yes, it is a bad sign if your fish has a fishy smell, especially when it is not preserved properly.

This is usually a sign or indication that the fish is beginning to go bad.

The appearance of a fish coupled with the smell can also indicate if it is truly bad.

Fish smell fishy because of an amine compound found on their skin surface.

When fish are exposed to oxygen, the amines oxidize, resulting in the fish’s characteristic odor.

Triethylamine compounds, which cause this odor, are mostly found in the skin of fishes and other aquatic animals.

When a fish dies and its body is exposed to air, bacteria begin to decompose the chemical compounds found on its skin.

Note: You may perceive several bad smells coming out of it but provided it is still fresh and has firm and shiny flesh, it is still salvageable.

Is It Bad To Eat Fish That Smells Fishy?

is bad to eat smelly fish

The answer to this question depends on how bad the fish smells. It is natural for all dead fish to start smelling, irrespective of how they are preserved.

Even frozen fish smell fishy too when kept for too long in a refrigerator.

You can still very much eat fish that has a fishy smell, provided it is still fresh, has a light pink or white skin color, and has firm skin.

But if your fish starts to develop a milky or glossy skin color with a slimy feel, it is damaged and not good for consumption.

Eating fish with a pungent smell has the potential to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

In severe cases, it can lead to neurological problems and even death. Not everyone can tolerate the smell produced by rotten fish, so it is advisable to avoid them in their entirety.

As a tip, if you come across any fish that has a strong ammonia odor, avoid eating it. 

Tip:  Avoid eating fish with bad smells as it can cause numerous health challenges.

How To Prevent Buying a Spoilt Fish

how prevent buying bad fish

By this point, you already have an idea of what causes fish to develop their fishy smell and also the implications of eating bad fish.

The next question on your mind would probably be “what does bad fish smell like?” Well, a bad fish always has a pungent fishy smell.

Their skins are usually mushy and sticky, with a creamy color.

Whenever you purchase fish from either the fish market or a food store, before you buy, you must smell the fish.

This is one of the first tests to know if a fish is bad or not.

If it smells good or fresh, you can buy it, but if it smells like ammonia, bleach, or any other chemical, you should not.

While a fishy odor isn’t necessarily harmful, it is a sign that the fish is no longer fresh and should be avoided at all costs.

Can Live Fish Have a Fishy Smell?

live fish has fishy smell

Live fish naturally do not have a fishy smell. They may smell like the ocean or lake water in which they are grown.

If you ever notice that your fish smells fishy, it could be due to poor health because live fish are known for their nice, soft smell.

If your fish has health problems, it could be due to poor water quality, overfeeding, or even bacterial infection.

If you notice that your fish is smelling strange, you should start by examining the water quality and temperature. If everything appears to be normal, then you should consider feeding your fish less.

Overfeeding can cause fish to produce more waste, resulting in a fishy smell.

If none of the above-listed precautions yielded any positive results, then it might be a bacterial infection.

Bacterial infections can cause your fish to develop a fishy smell, which is not only dangerous to the fish concerned but also to the other fish sharing the same pond with it.

Possible Solutions To Help Fix The Fishy Smell in Fish

possible solutions fix smelly fish

As discussed earlier, live fish do not normally seem to have a strong smell, but when they are dead, they begin to develop a fishy smell.

When you have a fish that smells fishy, you have a few options you can use to remove or limit these smells.

First, start by cleaning your fish by removing the scales and guts, and giving them a good rinse.

If the smell returns, try marinating your fish for 30 minutes in lemon juice, vinegar, or milk before cooking.

Cooking your fish with strong-smelling spices like garlic or ginger is another option to help mask the smell.

You can also wrap your fish in aluminum foil or banana leaves before cooking to help trap the smell.

Tip: Always refrigerate your fish to help reduce its fishy smell.


I believe, at this juncture, I have been able to provide answers to the question “If my fish smells fishy, is it bad?”

It is important to note that while fish is a healthy food with lots of nutritional value, such as the presence of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, some people might still find the smell of fish offensive.

Fish that smell like ammonia, bleach, or any other chemical should be avoided at all costs.

If the fish has a moderate fishy smell, it may still be good to cook. Just perform due diligence by checking the skin of the fish for any signs of it being bad.

Also, note that fish that has been sitting out of water for some time will start to develop a fishy smell as a result of the oxidation of the trimethylamine compound present in their skin.

So always preserve your fish by refrigerating it.