Koi Crazy

It's expensive, exotic, hard to breed, and here

Koi is carp. Yes, the brilliantly colored fish, plastered on billboards in Japan, is exactly the same species as the dull, gray, miserable, bottom-feeding, gefilte-fish ingredient.

This wild disconnect within Cyprinus carpio began in the early Nineteenth Century in an isolated, mountainous region on Japan's northern coast. Farmers in Niigata prefecture started noticing that some carp, which lived in rice fields, had unusual color markings. These fish, with black dots and red stripes, attracted the unwelcome attention of predatory birds. To protect the crop — carp is a popular food in Japan — farmers placed these unusual creatures in sheltered ponds. Once segregated, the mutant fish bred with each other, spawning fish with even more unusual markings. Farmers, charmed by the aesthetics, eventually began to mate carp to create unusual patterns. The special koi became pets. Farmers then discovered another characteristic of these newly domesticated fish: They lived not for years, but for decades. (Some Japanese farmers have even claimed that koi have lived more than 100 years.) People in Niigata called these distinctive carp Nishikigoi.

Joe Radice, koi farmer in training
Colby Katz
Joe Radice, koi farmer in training
Colby Katz

Over the next 100 years, the art was refined. Farmers experimented with not only color but also other characteristics; they combined, for instance, scaled and nonscaled fish. By the late Nineteenth Century, there were several named varieties of Nishikigoi. Red-and-white fish, for instance, were kohakus; black-and-white were showas. Still, koi farming was largely limited to a single province. In 1914 that changed. The Niigata koi were presented to Emperor Hirohito at a Tokyo exhibition. By the end of the century, Nishikigoi had grown into a multibillion-dollar industry complete with celebrity farmers and an expanding menu of more than 200 varieties. But while Japan went koi mad, the practice was, for much of the last century, virtually unknown to the gaijan (Americans).

Paul Radice does not seem like the type of guy who would be an expert in color coordination, Japanese pronunciation, or a fish nicknamed "the floating flower." He is a linebacker-size fellow (six feet two, 200-plus pounds) with a Larry Csonka mustache. He typically wears shorts, T-shirts, and Reeboks. He has normal guy interests — golf, sports, Marlins, Dolphins. Though he has a wicked penchant for Japanese barbecued eel, neither his house nor his wife Judy — a sweet-faced, brown-haired, fiftysomething — bears any signs of Japan-worship or effete tastes.

But if you look closely at his front yard — specifically the animals — a creeping sense of Radice's métier becomes clear. There's the miniature donkey, the hooded and cinnamon pigeons, the tortoise, the iguanas. And then, walking through the hobby farm one day, he says, "I don't believe there's anything in nature that you can't breed."

Radice's interest in breeding began early. At age eight, the second son of a Port Chester, New York machinist inherited an aquarium from his big brother, Len. Instantly fascinated by the hand-me-down, Paul got a few freebie guppies from a neighborhood friend and started prowling local pet stores. It didn't take long before he moved beyond simply collecting fish.

Soon the youngster learned that platies, an Amazonian breed, were easy to grow. He followed the instructions and, sure enough, within days, had a tank full. By the time he was twelve years old, Paul had turned his family's pantry into a hatchery — seven five-gallon tanks regularly pumping out infant angelfish, mollies, and danios. "Paul would fill up all of our pots and pans," recalls Carmela Radice of her son's post-spawn habits. "He said the baby fish would eat the little fish. What could I say to that? I just made sure I scrubbed the pots really good."

Paul's ichthyological obsession continued through high school. At one point, the Radice aquatic collection included twenty families of fish, close to sixty varieties, twelve small tanks, and two fifty-gallon aquariums. The teenager was also responsible for stocking the pond at his school, Holy Rosary.

After high school, Radice attended the University of Detroit, married Judy Kenzie, began prepping for work as a substance abuse counselor, and downsized his hobby to a mere aquarium and a handful of angelfish.

But he had no intention of giving up fish-breeding. In May 1972 Paul and Judy packed into a '71 Chevy Vega and headed for Dade County, Florida, the hub of the tropical fish universe. Pioneers had begun plucking mollies and livebearers out of Dade canals in the Thirties and Forties. Benefiting from the uniquely warm water, farmers here built the first tropical fish industry in the nation. In the early Sixties, after the discovery of plastic, pet stores across the country were able to make the aquarium hobby affordable, and the industry rapidly expanded. Radice had read about Miami's fish farmers in Tropical Fish Hobbyist, a trade publication. "There was no question," he says. "Miami was where I had to go."

Four months after arrival, Radice found a defunct fish farm, complete with 66 concrete tanks, in Kendall. The rent: 125 bucks a month. Angels Hatchery was born. Working days as a fish farmer and nights as a substance abuse counselor, Radice slowly built his nursery stock with livebearers, goldfish, and angelfish.

But Radice's big breakthrough came a few months later. In the early Seventies, researchers had discovered that the great lakes of eastern Africa — especially Malawi and Tanganyika — were packed with intensely colored cichlids, close relatives of South American species already popular with hobbyists. "No one believed freshwater fish could be so brilliant," Radice recalls of the African finds. But discovering the existence of the cichlids was one thing; figuring out how to breed them in captivity was another: One must experiment with temperature, vary pH and nutrient levels, and create the right social dynamics for mating.

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