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The Guide to Seafood Transportation: 3 Steps to Shipping Fish



The seafood supply chain is a complex network that begins offshore on fishing vessels and ends with grocery retailers. The exact nature of these chains can appear unconventional to laypersons; it’s not uncommon for fish caught off in Alaska to travel to China for processing and then all the way to New York City for distribution.

Maintaining the seafood’s quality and safety throughout the journey requires strict adherence to regulations and precise temperature monitoring. For example, FDA and USDA rules require that fresh seafood is always packed in ice during transit. This practice, coupled with continuous temperature monitoring, ensures that fresh fish stays safe to consume.

Though digital temperature monitoring has long been an important element of seafood safety, there is now a trend toward using real-time monitoring systems that transmit temperature data directly to a database in the cloud. This is a positive advancement that ensures continuous visibility. For example, rather than having to wait for manual temperature downloads from fishing vessels, real-time monitors can automatically transmit the data as soon as the boat comes into port. This process is much easier for fishers and guarantees there will be no gaps in data.

Seafood was also one of the first industries to adopt Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) guidelines. HACCP is a management system for addressing food safety through the analysis and control of specific hazards such as parasites and pathogenic bacteria. Following HACCP guidelines adds a layer of complication to the seafood supply chain, but the tradeoff is well worth it to maintain product integrity.

An In-Depth Look at Regulations & Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)

Given the long distances seafood travels from port to plate, strict compliance with federal regulations is necessary to ensure quality and safety. The primary regulations and rules that seafood companies must follow include the following:


The HACCP system was initially developed by NASA in the 1960s while working with Pillsbury to develop pathogen-free food with an extended shelf life that would be able to stay fresh during space travel. It was the first federal pathogen monitoring requirement for the food industry.

Today, HACCP is the standard protocol for seafood safety and regulated by the FDA. This system identifies critical points in production where potential hazards can be controlled. Every seafood company must establish a HACCP plan that outlines their strategies for maintaining food safety and preventing contamination. The United States Department of Commerce (USDC) approves these plans and conducts regular inspections to ensure compliance.


Following HACCP regulations requires adhering to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), which the FDA created to address hygiene, sanitation, and food handling best practices to minimize the risk of contamination during processing and manufacturing. Food processors and manufacturers are required to have documented procedures that comply with the most current GMP standards.

How is Seafood Transported?

Compared to other perishable goods, seafood has unique transportation requirements, especially in the early stages of the cold chain. Notable characteristics of the seafood transportation process include:

Fresh Fish Is Always Packed on Ice

Unlike fresh meat and poultry, fresh seafood must be constantly packed on ice to ensure freshness and prevent pathogens from forming. Fresh fish is packed on ice throughout its entire journey from fishing vessel to port to processing plant and then again from processor to retailer. (By contrast, frozen fish can generally be transported via more typical cold chain techniques.)

Transportation from the Boat

Fish are transferred from fishing vessels to truck trailers in large plastic bins or pallets filled with ice to preserve the freshness of the catch. These bins are then transported to processing plants, where the seafood is repackaged and prepared for distribution.

Grocers May Have Specific Requirements

Temperature monitoring is always required throughout transit, but each retailer has its own quality assurance standards that shippers must adhere to. Costco, for example, requires seafood shipped to its stores to be equipped with tag alerts, which let the retailer know if the seafood was exposed to high temperatures for an extended period during transit.

Inspectors Hold Companies to HACCP Plan

Seafood companies are responsible for developing their own HACCP plans and carrying them out. While companies have some flexibility in creating these plans, they must demonstrate their ability to identify and manage potential hazards. Inspectors rigorously evaluate companies’ HACCP plans and hold them accountable for following them.

Challenges When Shipping Fresh Fish

Shipping fish presents a range of challenges that require careful consideration. These include:

Maintaining the Correct Temperature

One of the biggest challenges of seafood transportation is maintaining the proper temperature throughout the supply chain. Temperature fluctuations can lead to pathogen growth and a reduction in product quality. Not all companies have real-time visibility into temperature conditions during transportation, though the trend for using real-time temperature monitors is growing.

Shelf-Life, Freshness, and Quality

Mishandling during transportation can significantly reduce fresh seafood’s shelf-life and freshness. For instance, an 8-degree increase in temperature, from 32°F to 40°F, can cut shelf-life by half. Seafood suppliers cannot guarantee a seafood product’s shelf-life without documenting its catch date and providing a detailed temperature history.

Fresh Appearance

If seafood doesn’t appear fresh by the time it makes its way to the fish counter at the supermarket, shoppers won’t want to buy it. Therefore, it’s essential to take additional steps to prevent seafood from being damaged in transit. For instance, salmon filets should be wrapped in individual bags so they can be stacked on top of each other during transit without tearing the delicate skin.

Packaged Products

When it comes to chocolate-based products, the specific requirements vary based on the type of item. For instance, chocolate bars have different humidity and temperature needs compared to baked goods like cookies or waffles, which are more likely to develop texture issues at high humidity levels. Meanwhile, chocolates filled with nougat, liqueur, or soft fondant are susceptible to cracking because sugar crystals expand at low temperatures.


Pathogens can spread through various means, including contaminated air and improper handling. To mitigate this risk, proper hygiene practices must be followed, and adequate separation of different seafood products should be maintained during processing and transit.

Pathogens can also begin to grow slowly whenever temperatures creep above 40°F, and can multiply rapidly at temperatures over 50°F. It's essential to adhere to strict temperature controls to prevent these dangerous organisms from proliferating.

  • Clostridium botulinum (Botulism): Each year, the U.S. experiences approximately 10 botulism outbreaks. It’s essential to control temperature levels, moisture, and pH levels to prevent the spread of this deadly bacteria.

  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph): Between 10 and 30 outbreaks of staphylococcal food poisoning occur annually in the U.S. The bacteria can enter seafood due to contact with unclean hands or equipment during processing and then multiplies if the seafood reaches unsafe temperatures for extended periods.

  • Scombrotoxin (Histamine): High levels of scombrotoxin, or histamines, can form in certain types of fish as a result of time and temperature abuse. Scombrotoxin poisoning is most commonly associated with mahi-mahi, marlin, and bluefish, as well as several other species of fish that are naturally inclined to develop elevated histamine levels. The best way to prevent histamine growth is through real-time temperature monitoring to keep fish from reaching excessive temperatures.

  • Parasites: Nematodes (roundworms), cestodes (tapeworms), and trematodes (flukes) are the parasites most commonly found in seafood. These parasites can be killed by cooking and present the greatest danger in fish that is intended to be consumed raw. The FDA outlines detailed parasite control strategies to prevent parasite hazards from forming.

Storage at Sea

Seafood buyers often lack clear information about how fish are stored on board fishing vessels before they return to port. Typically, freshly caught fish are stored in ice in the bottom hold of the boat. 

Temperatures should be kept below freezing to keep the fish in a “soft-freeze” state. However, verifying temperature levels has historically been difficult because it required manual reporting by fishers. However, new technology can transmit stored temperature records using cellular signals directly to a database, providing much higher levels of visibility.

How to Ship Fish: 3 Best Practices

Fresh seafood is highly delicate, even compared to other perishable goods. It must be handled carefully during transit to maintain freshness and quality. To ensure success, here’s what you need to know about how to ship seafood:

Invest in Real-Time Visibility

Real-time temperature monitoring solutions automatically transmit temperature information to a cloud database, making it possible to act quickly on issues. When you use monitoring systems without cellular transmission capabilities, you can only rectify temperature threats after the fact. But with real-time monitoring technology, you can take a proactive approach to addressing temperature deviations while seafood is still in transit, potentially saving the product from degradation and further reducing food waste in the supply chain.

Obtain Harvest Vessel Records

Real-time temperature monitoring should begin the moment the fish is harvested and stored in ice onboard the fishing vessel. When real-time monitors are kept in the hold where fish are stored, you automatically receive an accurate record of temperature readings throughout the boat’s journey. This provides proof of proper handling of the fish before it enters the supply chain at the port. Additionally, these monitors can stay on the boat, so supply chain teams don’t need to retrieve physical monitors in order to obtain information.

Maintain Temperature Throughout the Supply Chain

Continue to consistently monitor and maintain ideal temperatures from the point of origin to the final destination. Seafood is particularly sensitive to temperature fluctuations, so it’s critical to follow best practices before beginning transit. 

Companies need to ensure seafood is loaded at the correct temperature. This helps ensure that the product maintains its quality during transit. Additionally, no product should be stored along the walls of the truck. Since temperature can fluctuate throughout a reefer or storage space, it’s also important that problem areas are identified, so temperature monitors can be placed accordingly.

Final Thoughts: Partnering with Right Company for Seafood Logistics

Given the complexity and uniqueness of seafood transportation, partnering with an experienced logistics technology company is crucial to ensuring quality and safety throughout the cold chain.

Sensitech has decades of expertise in temperature monitoring, and our professional services team is ready to support you in identifying and correcting cold chain vulnerabilities. Learn more about how our cold chain solutions & monitoring devices can mitigate risks for your seafood cold chain.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Seafood Transportation

Frozen seafood should be transported in temperature-controlled environments, utilizing temperature monitoring systems to ensure consistent cold chain conditions. Unlike fresh seafood, which must be packed on ice, seafood that is already frozen can be shipped using more traditional cold transportation methods.

When shipping fresh seafood internationally, choosing the appropriate transportation mode (air, sea, land) depends on factors such as transit time, product type, destination, and cost considerations. Airfreight is often preferred for time-sensitive shipments due to its faster delivery, while sea freight may be more cost effective for larger quantities.

Additionally, international shipments require extensive documentation to comply with international regulations and traceability standards. Accurate and complete documentation is essential to clear customs smoothly and prevent delays.

Fresh fish must be packed on ice during shipping to keep it in a soft-freeze state, which prevents the growth of pathogens and maintains optimal quality. Using a real-time temperature monitoring system is the best way to guarantee freshness as it provides an opportunity to intervene as soon as a temperature excursion is detected.

Seafood should be shipped between 29°F and 32°F. Retailers and distributors may reject seafood shipments if the temperature is above 35°F, so it is important to monitor temperatures continuously throughout shipping to prevent time and temperature abuse.