Koi Crazy

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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.

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Josh Schonwald
Contact: Josh Schonwald

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