Koi Story

Collectors invest heavily in stocks and ponds.

To take liberties with a well-worn adage: You can give a man a fish, or you can breed just the right fish, coddle it for a few years, and then sell it to him for $20,000. The fish in question is not one of those sought-after species worth more dead than alive—caviar-laden Caspian Sea sturgeon, say, or sushi-grade ahi tuna—but rather the eminently collectable koi.

The formal Japanese name for these desirable, long-lived, and decorative creatures is nishikigoi, and raising the fish has become as central to Japanese culture as cultivating bonsai and weaving exquisite silk for kimonos. In Japan, koi are awarded star status and commensurate value. (Recently, a prizewinning five-year-old fish sold there for $170,000.) Now Americans are also getting into the game, turning their attention to their backyards and investing in the spectacular ponds that become the habitats of these living works of art.

Though the history of koi is imprecise, the accepted story is that breeding of the colorful creatures began at least 200 years ago in the village of Yamakoshi, in the Niigata Mountains. One day some farmers who were raising black carp as a food crop found a scarlet-red fish shining among their drab schools. The villagers decided that black carp were for eating and red carp were for keeping, and in the intervening years Japanese koi breeders developed more than 100 varieties. The fish's fascinating colors and markings are primarily what has captured the imaginations of collectors.

Among the many colorful varieties are kohaku (with red-and-white markings), showa (black, white, and red), asagi (red and dark blue, with light blue heads), and hikarimuji (monochromatic-yellow, platinum, gray, dark blue, or red). In terms of value and celebrity, one of the most popular is a pure white fish with a round red circle on the top of its head. In essence, the tancho (rhymes with honcho) is a physical embodiment of the Japanese flag. Adding to the tancho's desirability is the fact that the extraordinary pattern occurs only by chance in nature and cannot be achieved through breeding.

It's thought that the increase in interest in koi can be traced back to Emperor Hirohito, who in 1914 became fascinated with the "living jewels." But according to Joel Burkard, whose company Pan Intercorp in Kenmore, Washington, is one of the major importers of koi, the business of breeding and selling koi to international collectors really took off with a post-World War II innovation, the plastic bag, which allowed for easy transport of fish. The current market in the United States has grown exponentially since Pan Intercorp began importing koi 15 years ago. Today the company's ponds contain up to 30,000 fish at any given time.

While most koi aficionados share an interest in fine art, their interest in garden design is also a motivator. For them, this is an opportunity not only to collect the fish but also to become involved in transforming a garden into an elaborate environment, with landscaping being an integral part. In addition, in the States, some people find the cultural connection a draw. Richard Nieto, owner of Dai Ichi Koi Pond Construction & Landscaping in Fresno, California, is a landscape contractor whose specialty is building and maintaining high-end koi ponds. Nieto notes that about 60 percent of his clients are of Asian descent (Japanese or Chinese); another 20 percent are couples in which one member is Asian. "Many of these people feel a nostalgia for a particularly Asian form of art," he says. "One client told me he wanted a koi pond because his grandfather had one in Japan." Grant Fujita, of Hayward, California, was born in Japan and remembers catching carp in a river near his home and digging a pit to create a pond for them. "I didn't know about filtration or aeration," he says, "so I didn't have much luck keeping the fish alive." After coming to the United States 50 years ago, Fujita started collecting seriously. "Two things appealed to me: the wonderful colors of the fish and the fact that breeding koi began in my native country." Eventually, Fujita ended up with 50 superior examples of koi.

Since bigger fish are more visible to predators, great care has to be taken to guard them against herons and canny raccoons. (Nieto has seen raccoons stop up a pool's water supply so that the lower level makes for easier pickings.) "Four feet—minimum—is the healthy water depth for koi. They need the space, plus it helps protect them from the wading birds, who won't venture that deep." Some contractors build shallower pools to avoid having to get the required permit. "Believe me," Burkard says, "a two-foot koi pond is just a cafeteria for a hungry bird, and a six-inch one-year-old fish—what most people start with—is the heron's equivalent of a Snickers bar."

To begin a collection, or to add to an existing pond's color, a koi fancier will likely spend $250 or so for 8 six-to-eight-inch fish, or $450 for 50 four-to-six-inch yearlings. Koi are raised commercially in a number of places, notably Singapore, Israel, and the U.S., but collectors and dealers agree that the best are bred in Japan. Burkard, who spent most of his life in Japan, attributes this to the characteristic Japanese drive for perfection. "They accept that perfection is an unattainable goal, but it's part of the Japanese culture to keep striving for it. They never stop trying to breed the perfect koi."

Koi breeding and collecting in America tends to be more common in the western states, where the climate is generally warmer; keeping koi in the Northeast, though, is just a matter of extra care. James Martin, of Koi R Us in Milford Square, Pennsylvania, started importing koi in 1986 and has been breeding fish since 1990. "Keeping koi in the East hasn't reached the point of popularity that it has in the West," he says, "but it's definitely doable. Some people are willing to pay to heat their pools, while others use small floating heaters to keep a hole open in the ice so the fish can breathe. The most practical method is to move the koi into indoor tanks during the coldest months. I'd estimate that about half of all beginning collectors lose their fish the first winter, until they learn how to protect them."

Koi can live a long time. But the fish can grow to 17 inches in length by the age of three, so very large ones are not necessarily that old. Burkard has seen fish possibly 40 years old, but scoffs at the legends of some living for two centuries. "It's just not possible that a fish will survive through four or five generations of owners without having something go wrong," Burkard says. "Let's just say that koi live until we kill them."

Like the owners of pedigree dogs, koi owners often take their finest specimens to shows, displaying them at events like the annual Southern California Zen Nippon Airinkai Chapter Nishikigoi Show in Los Angeles. The ZNA are hobbyist-only events; professional breeders have their own circuit of Shinkokai shows. But the competition is surprisingly fierce. The shape of a fish matters, not just its size, and marks are given for poise—"How does she swim?" as one competitor described it. Koi are judged in classes such as Best Baby, Best Young, and Best Mature. In the latter category—the varsity-level competition—the oldest fish are often in their teens. Joel Burkard reports that age is no kinder to beautiful fish than it is to beautiful people. "Different koi age at different rates," he says, "but generally, after fifteen the bloom is off. Colors fade, shapes change, and they're usually sold to people who want something big and cheap."

One curious tradition of serious collectors, Burkard says, is to refrain from naming their fish. "It's a jinx to give a koi a name. As soon as you do that, it's going to die." So how can you keep track of a pond full of koi? "Call it by what it is," the importer advises. "Call it Tancho or Showa or Asagi. Or give it a number. Just don't call it Melissa."

Koi should be purchased from experienced dealers. Two choices are Pan Intercorp, 18615 80th Ave. NE, Kenmore, WA, 800-827-5819, www.koi.com; and Koi R Us Fish Farm, 2580 Wieand Rd., Milford Square, PA, 215-536-6076.

Your Own Pond

SETTING IT UP Even if you're starting small, be prepared to pay $15,000 for a filtered concrete pool that holds from 1,800 to 2,500 gallons and 12 to 15 koi. The prices go up from there—a 5,000-gallon pool will run you $20,000 to $25,000. Something larger, with a waterfall or streambed, can cost $120,000.

KEEPING IT GOING Just as important as the pond's size and style, says Richard Nieto, is the maintenance. Filters break down, pool heaters fail, and the larger the fish grow, the more complex the upkeep. When Larry Gill, of San Leandro, California, began buying koi in 1972, he at first "dug a hole, lined it with cement, and thought I had a koi pond." After three tries, he built a 13,000-gallon pond, which he eventually filled with 75 fish. Then his breeder suggested he raise fewer koi so he'd end up with the kind of big, beautiful fish that win shows. Of the 15 he has now, two are 31-inch contenders.

Dai Ichi Koi Pond Construction & Landscaping, 559-297-8485; www.dai-ichikoipondbuilder.com.