As always, to appreciate Nishikigoi ("Koi"), one needs to understand that the most important part of breeding is the process of selection. Culling. Some time ago a breeder pointed out to me that good Koi costs more because breeders must invest more in the parent fish, the facilities to house them, to grow in mud ponds, to medicate, to feed and even more to transport. It has been said often among breeders, "that there are good fish and there are cheap fish. But there are no good cheap fish.”
Most all collectors of Koi begin with the notion after seeing a photo of a beautiful fish at a show, they think they can achieve the same result as the photo when purchasing a small fish at a local store or Koi outlet. This is always difficult for Koi enthusiasts to understand and to accept that it is not very likely or possible.
The anticipation and excitement is not much different from the time when a rice farmer of the Yamakoshi area of Niigata 400 years ago caught a glimpse of something pretty and unique swimming in a rice paddy. These were the first mutations appearing in their rice ponds and they began isolating to breed into something more than just food fish to supplement their diet. Raising them with the same hope and enthusiasm that these fish would become something beautiful and unique not unlike like the hobbyist when he makes his initial observation. However, there are a few important and profound differences.
The reality of two hundred years of experience and history have tempered the expectations of the people of this harsh isolated mountainous area who were uniquely suited by geography, temperament and character for just this assignment they had been chosen for and, one other cruel factor, survival.
Breeders cannot possibly enough to survive if they sell their best fish when they are small. It is not possible to expect that a good breeder would sell a six (6) inch fish for a fraction of what he could get for it after he grows it out. Sometimes as much as 1000 times more. If he does consider selling, it would be for the amount he would expect to charge after it has been grown out for an additional season. The remote possibility that the fish develops as one hopes, would be at the risk of the buyer and I do not know any collectors with the knowledge or pond system that is remotely equal to the water and environment these fish are raised in japan.
Years ago while on a buying trip, I was attempting to purchase smaller better quality koi that were held in reserve or as the Japanese refer to as (tategoi) the breeder asked me sarcastically, "would I ever return to buy a fish from him for $5000 if the one I wanted to pay $100 developed into a $5000 one and what would he have left to sell next year to bring gohan (rice) for his table.
What most beginners don't realize is that the normal number of fry hatched from a spawn is between 50,000 to 75,000. Because of the huge genetic pool for koi approximately 95% are destroyed before the first tosai (1yr old) are sold. Ninety-five percent of these are marketed first. Most of these are males because they can extract the brighter colors first. Females are more valuable and slower to develop and held longer. The remaining five percent are kept to be sold later in two or three years after they are harvested from mud grow out ponds. This means the average breeder ends up with 250 good fish from the original number of 50,000. This does not include loses from disease or accidents (I am aware of total wipe outs which occur more often than breeders like to admit.) most breeders consider 250 fish to be a bumper crop, that is why they have five to ten breeding pairs which consists of one female with two and three males plus back up fish if something happens to the primary breeders. This a large investment in time, equipment and real estate and land is not cheap in japan. Consider this, a half-acre mud pond may hold only twenty 2 year old and even fewer 3 year old fish. A separate pond for males and females. The best breeders have as many as twenty grow out ponds. Some of the bigger ones more. I recall once on a fall harvest trip when we took a customer with us on a visit to a famous Kohaku breeder. My customer was hypnotized by all the beautiful fish they were harvesting out of the mud ponds. We noticed in a separate area a few isolated Koi and my customer asked me for the price of a fish we all agreed was the best one there. I was reluctant but curious as well. I asked the breeder and he told me that it was sold. After a long pause he added that it was the best fish he had bred in 4 years. We knew enough not to pursue it further, but the customer insisted. He finally revealed the price to us when we returned the next day. The fish was sold and my customer left with another fish and more important, new found respect for Koi and how much is involved to make a really good one. That fish represented 4,000,000 fry spawned by this breeder and two generations (now three) of experience.
The price for Koi, the ones produced by quality breeders in japan is determined by the cost of the cheaper ones sacrificed. This is the reason the Koi industry is and always has been determined by the selection process. Without which the best Koi are spawned or would have ever evolved. The breeder culls constantly, as do brokers, Koi outlets and finally the collector each time he purchases another Koi. Whether realizing it or not he must decide which ones he will keep and which ones he may have to eliminate.
As for the breeder, if it were not for his dedication, discipline and the hard work involved in selection process there would be no reward for producing the best Koi and, the beautiful creatures we admire and love so much could not have evolved
One breeder, who is no longer with us, left me with this to remember him by. "I have lived my whole life walking in mud ponds up to my shoulders searching for jewels.”