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Rick Eager proves that "fish farming" isn't a bad word

One Fish, Two Fish

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Rick Eager's got rhythm. Sly, stealthy rhythm. The kind that hits you in waves and makes you jiggle from the inside out, making you do things you never thought you'd do, before busting with joy and collapsing in utter submission. The James Brown of aquaculture. His target: invasive, summertime algae. It doesn't stand a chance.

"It's a way of keeping the water clean with soundwaves," says Eager, the founder of Swimming Rock Fish Farm, a division of South Santee Aquaculture.

Eager is standing on the shoreline of one of several ponds he has created at his fish farm just inland of the Toogoodoo River, about 20 miles west of Charleston. "The machine emits a series of very small, low wattage, millisecond blasts that rotate through 17 different frequencies," explains Eager. "One wave hits the outer wall of the algae cell, penetrates it, and slows down, then inside the cell is a vacuole of air that speeds up. This is repeated: slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up, etc., until it ruptures the vacuole. The algae sinks, and it can't get up to get the oxygen and light, so it dies."

Death by rhythm. Just one of the tricks Eager has up his sleeve in his efforts to clean up the fish farming industry, an industry he thinks has huge potential stateside but gets a bad rap. Eager's operation, Swimming Rock Fish Farms, is living proof that fish can be farmed with no chemicals, no hormones, no antibiotics, cleanly, and sustainably — and taste great too.

Swimming Rock is so named because the fish are still swimming when Eager delivers them to say Chef Jon Cropf at The Drawing Room restaurant downtown or at the Tides Hotel on Folly Beach.

The Drawing Room's take on Swimming Rock's red drum - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Drawing Room's take on Swimming Rock's red drum

Think about it — unless you catch a fish yourself, clean it, and cook it up, what do you really know about the freshness of what you're ordering? "Daily catch" could mean a fish that was caught in the Gulf Stream six days before, packed on ice, then stored dockside for processing before its ultimate delivery.

If you order one of Eager's cobia, redfish, or tilapia, you know its heart was beating only hours before. Eager harvests his catch out of giant tanks with a seine net, then plops the fish directly into a six-foot tank secured on the back of his pickup truck. En route to BLU or The Drawing Room, the swimming fish are moved in a slurry of ice water which slows them to stillness (literally "fresh frozen"). "Then it's to the chiller whole and cleaned just before dinner, so the blood doesn't get into the meat of the fish," Eager says.

"There are two different angles of sustainability," says Chef Cropf. "Local fishermen like Mark Marhefka catching fish in the wild, and people like Rick Eager raising fish on his property in a sustainable manner. Both approaches are important, and both maintain the environment if done responsibly."

To Farm or Not To Farm

Negative reactions to the term "fish farm" are common. We've all heard horror stories of densely packed pens pumped full of antibiotics to battle parasitic infection or overcrowding diseases. Or stagnant, fetid, chemical-laden ponds in Asia, the leading producer of the world's farmed seafood.

Yet in a world where there simply aren't enough fish in the sea to satisfy global consumption, farmed seafood is a necessity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and half of that is sourced from aquaculture. Rick Eager figured, why not do it locally? And why not do it right?

"People don't understand fish farms," he says as he shakes his head. "They think they bring in a lot of diseases. It's actually the opposite. The bad stuff comes from the outside, and in the farm it's concentrated. It's like when your kid is four-years-old and they're healthy as can be, then you send it to kindergarten, and in two weeks they get sick as hell, the whole class gets sick as hell. It's concentrated, it amplifies."

Thus the need for a constant flow of clean water, what Eager calls his "single flow-through system." At high tide, when the incoming current is no longer turbulent, a 7.5 horsepower motor pumps water from the creek into his ponds at a fast and furious rate of 1,300 gallons per minute. The water is clean; an offshoot of the creek, it's not sullied by oil coming from boat traffic. Eager channels the flow into a settling pond, then into a tower, then into his fish tanks, then out to an effluent pond, then to another pond. By the time the water is released back out to the creek, upstream of his intake, it is arguably cleaner than when it came in.

Swimming Rock is a peaceful spot, two miles from the Wadmalaw Sound. A large hangar full of large finishing tanks sits near Eager's home by the creek, with ponds and raceways stretching beyond. He makes his rounds daily, checking on aerators, pumps, and filters, often with a waddling pelican not far behind.

"That's Henry," he laughs. "He was blown in by a big storm and never left. He walks up and down the raceways with me, waiting for food. He'll nip me on the ass if I don't give him something."

Red drum (also known as redfish, spottail bass, or channel bass) typically spawn in August or September, when the water is 80 degrees and the sun's cycle lasts 12-14 hours per day. Eager has devised a tank that mimics those conditions. He can trick them into spawning anytime. The red drum spawn two million eggs per week in water run through natural biofilters: layers of oyster shells, lava rock, and gravel. The young fish start off in the pond, then move to the tanks to clean their systems of any lingering pond residue, before ultimately growing to three to five pounds.

As for food, Eager sources commercial feed designed to give the fish exactly what they need. "Here," he says, reaching into the bag with his hand. "You can eat it. It's like Grape Nuts," he says. He rips the label off the bag and hands it to me. I skim through the ingredients, focusing on soybeans.

Red Drum are raised along with hybrid striped bass and tilapia in Swimming Rock Fish Farm's ponds - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Red Drum are raised along with hybrid striped bass and tilapia in Swimming Rock Fish Farm's ponds

Here's where fish farming gets tricky if you're arguing sustainability. Soy relies on petroleum-based fertilizers, so many argue against it as a sustainable crop. Detractors say that in order for fish to taste like fish, fish need to eat other fish, yet we can't destroy the ocean's food chain in order to grow seafood artificially, especially considering it takes four pounds of wild fish to create one pound of salmon.

"They're saying, 'Don't take so much fish out to make a fish,'" explains Eager. "So we're starting to substitute grains and vegetable oils and lysine, the essential amino acids that are in fish oil. I had a lady wanting to buy my fish, and she told me, 'I won't buy anything that's non-GMO.' Well, all soybeans are from genetically modified strains. If you want fish that have not eaten proteins that come from GMOs, you'll have to use only wild fish, and they're ain't a lot of it!"

Eager argues that his Cargill soy-based feed is fantastically efficient. A little goes a long way. He estimates that it takes two pounds of dry processed feed to make one pound of wet fish.

"There is no set definition for sustainability," argues Eager. "To my way of thinking, sustainability means three things: One, critter — you can't have an adverse impact on the wild population. Two, environment — you can't have an adverse effect on the natural environment. And three, business — it's got to make money. You can't make money growing fish. You make money selling fish. You have to cover costs and reserve funds to overcome disaster, such as the time Hurricane Floyd hit and the governor cut off the power. I lost everything."

Little Fish in a Big Pond

Eager's cell phone rings for the fifth time inside of an hour. After an excited chat, he reports, "There's a black farmer's co-op starting up in Columbia. They're going after fish farming grants. I had them down here, and I'm reviewing their business plan now."

This speaks to Eager's desire to rev up South Carolina's aquaculture industry.

"Agriculture is the chief money-making venture in South Carolina," says Eager. "Everybody thinks tourism is No. 1, but it's agriculture. And aquaculture, for the rest of the nation, is the fastest growing segment of agriculture, but not in South Carolina. Fish farming, as a business, is declining in South Carolina, where it ought to be expanding."

So until the Palmetto State catches up, Eager has cast his net wide. He's on the board of an indoor shrimp farm in Florida and consults with prospective farmers near and far, sharing his environmentally sensitive approach. He is the biologist in charge and minor owner of a fish farm six miles off the coast of Belize; the farm plans to build 30 net pens and produce about 800,000 pounds of skin-on filet to ship on ice via Fedex to U.S. restaurants. Eager says his filtration is excellent with 1.1 meters per second flowing through his pens, carrying any waste down into a deep ocean trench.

According to Eager, what he's doing stateside, doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. "Seafood is a global commodity. In order to understand the global market, I need to track anchovies in Chile, shrimp consumption in China. Anything less than 1,000 tons doesn't count. What I do here in South Carolina doesn't count. The two million pounds I'll raise in Belize won't even make a ripple. But if I replicate it 20 times..."

Which means that as long as Rick Eager has his hand in a pond, there is hope for a clean and green aquaculture future.

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