By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The breeder said yes.
He agreed to buy them.
But then the elderly man looked down at his fish, as if talking to them, and said, "If you are going to America, you will not live long."
There were no All Japan-scale koi shows in the United States in the Nineties, but the hobby was growing. Koi ponds had become increasingly popular with affluent customers who could afford the several thousand dollars necessary to set up a back-yard spread. Some spent lavishly; Hugh Hefner, for instance, added a koi pond to the Playboy Mansion. And there was a nascent show circuit. Hobbyists, members of the country's roughly 100 koi clubs (there are six in Florida), traveled with their prized fish on a national circuit of 30 gatherings that were modeled on those in Japan. At the shows, judges employed a dog show-style set of criteria such as first impression, intensity of color, quality. The quest for best koi was at last on in America.
Within this little world of competitive hobbyists, Radice enjoyed a streak in the Nineties four of his fish won first place at Florida shows; three went to the national competition. Radice's farm, which moved from Kendall to the Redland in 1983, began receiving visits from Japanese exchange students who were curious about the gaijan who grows Nishikigoi.
And in 1995, Moriyama, who was regarded as one of the nation's koi masters, stopped by one morning and acknowledged Radice's progress with his understated compliment.
But just a few years after Moriyama-san praised Radice's hi, just as the Redlander was building a national reputation, he quit. Angels still, of course, sold fish to show-goers, but as of July 1999, "We weren't going to bring our fish to shows ever again," Radice says.
His discontent with the show circuit had been brewing throughout the Nineties. He was sick of hearing "bullshit" about the origins of koi. This advertisement, from Infiltration, an online koi vendor, is typical of what riled Radice:
"Who cares about where the fish is from?" Radice says. "A good fish is a good fish is a good fish no matter where it's from or who bred it. You can see by looking at it." He didn't believe it was wrong to credit skill ("Isa Hajime is very good") but such a focus lent itself, he said, to bullshit marketing. "A guy wins at All Japan, then everyone in the United States claims to have his koi? How can you prove where a koi is from? You can't."
Radice became a bit of a lone wolf in the Nineties part of a small group that refused to speak about the origins of their fish, saying simply they're from Niigata or the "mountains of Japan." This stance hurt him with certain clients who insisted on knowing that a fish was, say, a Dainichi, in the same way people need to know a watch is a Rolex. But extreme hobbyists were a minuscule market. "It wasn't worth it," he says. "I just didn't want to play that game."
Another thing that troubled Radice about shows was their inherent negativity, a legacy of the Japanese tradition. Judges evaluated contestants on a wide variety of criteria, but by far the most important was confirmation. Each fish was scrutinized for flaws sometimes microscopic such as a fading color or a blurred line. "They'd say that kiwa [a line] isn't sharp enough," Radice says. Some people would become so obsessed with achieving show-quality perfection they would get rid of a twenty-year-old fish because it developed a spot. "Maybe I'm a half-glass-full type, but it pained me to hear people talk this way," Radice says. "They were losing sight of the fact that this isn't just a piece of art, these are living things."
Ultimately though, Radice gave up the show circuit because of the "hot potatoes" in Orlando. At the All Florida show in July 1999, Judy, traveling alone with 200 fish, overheard several other vendors bragging, "These fish were imported from Japan within the last week."
Judy called Paul immediately, alarmed. "We're surrounded by hot potatoes!" she said. Imports are typically quarantined for two weeks because the stress of travel puts them at great risk for disease. Anything less than two weeks is considered risky.
"Get the fish out of there right now," Paul told Judy immediately. Radice's fear was not for his koi but rather the reaction of outraged customers. When people buy at shows, all of their purchases are grouped together in a single tank. After they return home and their beloved $10,000 collection is ravaged by disease they have no idea who sold the diseased fish. Finger-pointing begins. "People become understandably hysterical," Radice says. "They start blaming us. I didn't want any part of this."
In 1997 the koi world got its biggest jolt ever from, of all places, Israel. The country's koi industry was destroyed over the course of a few weeks by a bizarre disease of unknown origins. This ichthyologic strain of herpes, which is highly contagious through direct contact with buckets, nets, parasites, even water, affects only the carp family. It damages the fish's internal organs and can kill them in a matter of days.