Koi Crazy

Koi Crazy

Rumors of the $10,000 fish began trickling in this past December. The idea that people would pay as much for a single fish as they would for a used BMW was outrageous, of course. But the more intriguing thing about this fish was its purported location.

Paul Radice owns a four-bedroom ranch house next to a palm-tree farm in the Redland. On a sunny day this past February, the beefy, mustached 56-year-old walks through his back yard, also known as Angels Hatchery, a maze of nearly 100 concrete tanks. He points to row after row of brilliantly colored fish — cobalt blues, blood reds, jet blacks, metallics, albinos, species from the mountains of Africa and the jungles of Brazil. There are two-inchers labeled "$40 a piece," red ones at "3 for $100," tri-colors for $150, a sixteen-incher for $500. Not a single fish for ten grand.

But then Radice goes to his front yard, to a small pool lined with palms that he calls "the show pond." This lagoon, which looks like it belongs in a Hawaiian hotel, holds much larger, more complicated creatures — twenty-pounders with multiple colors and complex patterns. All of these roughly 100 fish have names: The kohaku. The showa. The doitsu. The dragon. Gazing out at this mob, Radice points at an unusual fish, black-and-white with a red belly, that is slowly tracing its way along the pool's bottom. "The beni kumonryu," he says, almost solemnly, elongating each vowel. "The beni. I could have sold that a thousand times."



When asked for a price, though, he shakes his head, as if the question were absurd. "Not for sale. Never will be."

But several days later, Radice — again probed for numbers — is more specific, recounting an incident that happened during Game 4 of the 1997 World Series. In the second inning of the Marlins-Indians matchup — a game that Radice badly wanted to watch — a sheik, in full turban, rolled up to Angels along with a ten-person entourage, an SUV, a van, and a limo. The sheik — Radice won't reveal his name — toured the tanks, spent several thousand dollars, and then, when led to the show pond, became fixated on what Radice calls "my hi showa." This fish, which has red markings and highly unusual black-and-white pectoral fins, was in the private, not-for-sale collection.

The dignitary's English-speaking emissary, clearly unaccustomed to such impediments, said emphatically: "The sheik wants that fish."

Radice wouldn't budge. The showa was, he said, "like a relative."

The sheik, however, continued to point, and his interpreter said simply: "Name your price."

This exchange — sheik pointing, interpreter asking, Radice rejecting — repeated six times. "I probably could have got," he says, pausing, "well over $10,000."

Later that morning, Radice reveals that $10,000 was, relatively speaking, chump change. Back in his small office, Angels' headquarters, he points to a calendar on his wall with a picture of a red-and-white fish. "That kohaku," he says, "sold for $500,000 in Japan."

Radice uses only Hikari, a Japanese fishmeal. His office is stuffed with Japanese-language fish magazines and books. He considers his career's greatest moment to be when Japanese immigrant Takayana Moriyama, whom he calls the "greatest fish breeder in America," looked at one of his prized kohakus and uttered two words: "Good hi." (Hi means a distinct red pattern.) But Radice is not the only one in his neighborhood who would be thrilled to hear "good hi" from Moriyama-san. There are others in the Redland who specialize in raising koi, the colorful Japanese fish: Doug Ward at Fancy Koi, Phil Marraccini at Summerland Tropical Fish Farm, Oskian Yaziciyan at Goldfish and Koi USA — and that's just within five miles of Radice.

With roughly fifteen farms specializing in everything from African cichlids and angelfish to guppies and goldfish, plus plenty of back-yard hobbyists, the Redland area has long been South Florida's ornamental fish capital. It's a multimillion-dollar industry in South Miami-Dade.

And the granddaddy of the ornamentals is no newcomer. Says Radice: "We've been growing koi here since before most people knew how to spell it."

Although plenty of people in South Dade can tell you the difference between a kohaku and a doitsu, and whether Niigata has better tosai than Isawa, there is one thing Radice does that no one else in Dade — and few people in the nation — will dare try. He is attempting to breed show-quality koi — i.e., fish that can wow the Japanese and, at maturity, cost as much as a decent Tokyo apartment. When longtime Redland neighbor and fellow farmer Marraccini heard about this, he was dumbfounded. "He's trying to grow show-grade koi...." he said, raising an eyebrow. "Like the Japanese? Do you know what they have to do?"

What they do, which is inconceivable to some, is called selection, a meticulous culling. And on a gray Tuesday last month, Radice dips a small blue bowl called a ling into Angels Tank 96. "The key to this," he says, as ten two-inchers trickle into his ling, "is the basic idea that out of every twenty fish in an aquarium, there are one or two good ones." In searching for show koi, he says, the numbers are much different. "We're looking for basically, out of every spawn of 20,000, maybe ten extremely good fish." He pauses. "But if you're looking for a great fish, an All Japan Show fish," he says, referring to the Super Bowl of koi farming, where winners routinely sell for $500,000, "you're looking for one out of, say, every ten million."

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.

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.

In March 1973, Radice cracked the code of the African lakes — and became one of the first farmers in the world to breed the Lake Malawi cobalt blue cichlid. Soon stories about his find were published in trade publications such as Pet Dealer, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, and Aquaristik (Germany).

One of the people who heard about "King of the Cobalts" was a fellow in California named Jerry Scoggins. A newcomer to cichlids, Scoggins was among the country's better-known koi experts. "He didn't even call them koi," Radice recalls of an early conversation with the Californian. "Every fish had a specific Japanese name." Scoggins claimed his koi bore little resemblance to the pet shop variety.

Intrigued, Radice bought 35 fish for $5000. Some cost $300 apiece. "I'd never paid that much in my life." But within weeks of receiving his first shipment, Radice was on the phone to California. "I had never seen anything like them."

It's called koi kichi, and simply translated, it means koi crazy. Symptoms include a yearning for the intensity of a particular color, a fixation on an unusual pattern, or awe at the fleeting nature of living art. In Japan — where prized kokakus have been transported in the company of bodyguards, and one wealthy industrialist, Masao Kato (a.k.a. Kato-san), has spent tens of millions of dollars on his collection — koi kichi has a long, rich tradition.

But beginning in the Sixties and Seventies, the obsession spread to the United States. In its mild form, this simply meant staring for hours at a color pattern or pleading with an owner to sell a particular showa. But it also reached extremes: A Maryland dentist mortgaged his home and dropped $65,000 on a fetching koi. Others, hell-bent on finding a particular pattern, have spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire trained scouts to scour the farms of Niigata.

"It's sort of like gambling. It's addictive," says Brenda Atwell, assistant editor of Koi USA magazine, a 6000-circulation bi-monthly for hobbyists. Atwell became hooked in 1995 after finding a striking budu goromo, a white koi with a pattern that resembles bunches of grapes.

"It's because [koi] are vanishingly rare," adds Les Berkow, a retired gynecologist in Boca Raton who founded the Tropical Koi Club of South Florida and has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the fish. "They're so unique. When you see one you want, you have to have it."

For Radice it was the stunning first impression. "The intensity of the color," he comments, recalling his first box of Nishikigoi, "they were like works of art."

Very few other Americans in 1973, however, were koi kichi.

Several attempts to sell Nishikigoi had already failed, and Radice, who believed the quality difference was obvious ("You had to be blind [not to see it]"), found that some customers couldn't understand why one fish cost five times as much as another of the same size. Fancy koi was only a tiny slice of his business — less than one percent a year. Still his fascination grew.

The reason: Breeding show-quality koi was the ultimate challenge. Sure you could put them in a pond and they'd spawn tens of thousands of eggs — no problem. But the species, unlike other fish Radice had worked with, had a whole array of recessive genes. Meaning: The quality of a koi depended, in large part, on the parentage and grandparentage of the fish. Mating cichlids was, by contrast, simple: Put two blues together and you'd have a 99 percent chance of getting blue. Not with koi. In 1974, in an early test, Radice placed several of his best beautiful males in a pool with his best females. Result: mediocrity. He kept trying different combinations. Eventually, through trial and error, he learned that only certain females — not necessarily the most beautiful — reliably produced fish with certain characteristics. Being a koi breeder, he realized, was like being a genealogist. "You had to understand the spawning history of each fish. You had to keep detailed notes on your stock."

Radice also had to master what is considered the most difficult part of koi farming: culling. Berkow, one of only 29 certified judges of competitions in the nation, likens this meticulous practice "to finding Miss America from a pool of 100,000 babies."

As Radice progressed, slowly learning the science, art, and fundamentals ("If you don't feed a fish right, it's color will fade"), it became clear he had to do what any serious Nishikigoi breeder must do. "I had to see these people," he says.

Traveling with an interpreter in October 1993, Radice took a koi kichi trip. He visited 109 farms in eleven days, hitting every one in Isawa and then 95 in nearby Niigata. The notoriously secretive Japanese farmers were surprisingly open with Radice. He observed the culling process several times; in Isawa he was even given a great honor — the chance to participate in the final feeding before the koi began their annual five-month hibernation.

But all was not well. Radice has a theory about why the Japanese breeders were so willing to let him view their work. "They were completely unthreatened," he says. In fact some Japanese farmers, he believes, seemed to think the idea of Americans and koi — let alone a gaijan breeder — was worse than ludicrous. In Isawa, Radice spotted some fish with among the most intense colors he'd ever seen. Excited, he asked through an interpreter whether they were for sale.

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:

"This year, we have a selection by Isa Hajime Koi Farm. Hajime is one of the finest showa breeders in Japan. Toshio Sakai named Hajime in his Top Ten."

"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.

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.

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.

3. Sharp Lines
Blurry colors won’t win you props in Tokyo — or in Boca Raton. “The lines between colors,” Berkow says, “should look like they were cut by a razor.”

4. Form
Learn your patterns. Sasha Cohen needed to master the triple Lutz; you, aspiring koi keeper, should be fluent in the basic patterns of the Nishikigoi tradition. If your koi matches the classic markings of a legendary kohaku, you might have a player.

5. Care and Maintenance
Don't be cheap or lazy. Keeping fancy koi means treating your fish like true VIPs. Prized koi need their space — one fish for every 100 gallons of water. Filter your pond constantly to simulate a pristine mountain stream. (Water should totally recirculate at least twice a day.) Also, vacuum and apply algae-killing products to your pool once a week. Feed your red-ribbon winners twice a day. And don’t feed them just anything. Mediocre food — such as doggy bits — will actually dull their color, says Paul Radice.


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