Koi Crazy

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

The threat of this mysterious koi AIDS did not prompt hysteria in Radice. He's almost hard-boiled when talking about calamity. Predatory birds, failed shipments, unclean water, hurricanes — it's all part of the job. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew, his worst disaster, killed thousands of fish. (The primary culprit was pine resin from felled trees, which polluted the water.)

Disease is, for Radice, a constant concern. He walks the farm three times a day in search of strange behavior — called stacking, flashing, or piping — that could indicate disease. About once a month he spots it. "And if you catch it early, it can almost always be treated," says Radice, who often hosts seminars of koi health.

The hysteria about the koi herpes virus (KHV), though, was at a different level. Koi imports from Israel were temporarily banned. The disease devastated Indonesia's industry. And in 2003, the virus hit Japan; more than 1000 tons of carp had to be destroyed, and the Japanese, terrified the epidemic would spread to the Nishikigoi industry, canceled several major shows.

Paul Radice sits in front of his show pond, home of the 
prized koi
Colby Katz
Paul Radice sits in front of his show pond, home of the prized koi

Concerns about the dangers of koi viruses — particularly KHV — drove some farmers three years ago to begin calling for an unprecedented solution: an all-out ban on koi imports. Although this ban doesn't appear to be a serious threat right now, explains David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association, some in the domestic koi industry support this — it would, after all, eliminate foreign competition. In the Nishigikoi world, any talk of curbing imports causes grave concern. "It's scary," says Berkow. "Our lifeblood is Japanese koi."

For Radice such a ban raises an interesting possibility. He is what's called a "jobber" — importing and reselling fish from Japan — but he is also one of the few breeders of show-quality koi in the nation. And this skill could make him infinitely more important in a post-Japan world. Of this possibility, he shrugs and says simply: "I guess I'd specialize in two or three varieties of kohaku. I have good hi." That's what farms do in Japan, he adds — specialize in varieties. Production for Nishikigoi enthusiasts would become a larger part of his business.

egardless of what happens with koi importation, Radice has two other projects underway. One day, he pulls out a ragged copy of Tropical Fish Hobbyist, a leading trade magazine, with a cover story about the Indian rose line shark — a new tropical fish from India. Radice says lustily: "And no one has bred it yet."

He's also working on what is potentially his biggest and most traditionally Japanese project yet: the breeding of Joe Radice. Sixteen-year-old Joe is five feet ten, broad-shouldered, a sophomore at Coral Reef High School, a swimmer, and an AP student interested in zoology.

Niigata's koi growers traditionally pass on their secrets from generation to generation. All members of the Radice family — Judy, their two daughters — have been trained in the principles of breeding, culling, and handling. But the great hope is that the fish farmer's son could be the heir apparent.

When Radice talks about his son — whom he didn't make available for comment — he almost sounds like he's talking about a promising second-baseman. "Good eye, great handler," he'll say. Joe has been handling, breeding, culling, catching, showing koi all of his life. The Karate Kid-like training continues. Whenever Radice receives a fresh shipment from Japan — about eight times a year, an exciting event for the family — Joe gets the first pick. Radice then takes his son's selection and places it in a small pond behind the house. After two years comes the inspection: "If it's a good pick, with good color," Radice says, "it goes in the show pond. If not, it's sold."

So far Joe has two fish in the hard-to-crack lagoon.

"You're not supposed to put pressure on them, are you? Joe can do whatever he wants," Radice says one day, as he sits in Angels' office, the red-and-white kohaku blazing behind him. "But you should see him handle fish," he adds. "He can carry a fifteen-pound koi twenty feet without hurting it. I mean, I'm not saying you should do that. You should always avoid handling a fish. Very stressful. But I'm just saying ... in an emergency. He's a very good handler." Radice pauses. "He's got a lot of potential."

The Road to Tokyo

So you just spent $10,000 on a hot kohaku, and you’re dreaming about winning the All Japan Show. Here are five things you need to know, Daniel-san, in your pursuit of glory. 1. The Compulsories
Your Nishikigoi should have its eyes and whiskers in the right place, fins intact, and good skin texture. And it must possess the desired shape — no Rubenesque fish need apply. “The koi should be shaped like a torpedo,” says Les Berkow of the Tropical Koi Club of South Florida. Oftentimes males, which tend to be larger, have a less-than-optimal cigar shape. Also, aberrant moles/beauty marks are discouraged.

2. Bright Colors
The difference between the color of pond koi and Nishikigoi is like the difference between a third-grader’s crayon and Matisse’s paint. Your fish will need to begin with a good palette. “The white should be like snow,” Berkow advises. This is crucial for contrast. Also, your fish’s reds and blacks should be brilliant and thick so you can’t even see its scales.

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