Below the pond’s surface, koi varieties glow in a bevy of brilliant colors and patterns. “Many customers prefer the shiny metallic colors over the standard kohaku, sanke and showa mixes that importers often have, so we’ve moved in that direction recently,” said Randy Lefever, president and co-owner of Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery in Kernersville, N.C.
“Koi were a novelty 25 years ago. Fast forward to today and your average person is more sophisticated. They’ve seen the ‘plain Jane’ and bought the ‘you get what you pay for.’ As the market has gotten sophisticated, producers have to do the same to keep up,” said Lawrence Cleveland, president of Ozark Fisheries Inc. in Stoutland, Mo. “[Consumers] used to ask for koi; now the top 25 to 35 percent come in and ask for them by name, [such as sanke koi].”
Breeders said that offering several koi varieties is key to filling this demand.
“The biggest [trend] I see is a wider variety of fish from the breeder level,” said Thomas Smith, president of Garden State Koi & Aquatic Center in Warwick, N.Y.
Of equal importance is quality, experts reported.
“As the koi market has matured, buyers have become more discriminating, and [they] expect to see higher quality fish in regards to color and pattern,” Lefever said. “Quality breeders understand this and invest the time and effort required to cull their crop and grow only attractive, marketable fish.”
Colors and patterns must be balanced, prominent and distinct, Cleveland said. His fishery practices selective breeding to improve the color patterns and, therefore, provide more desirable fish, he said.
“The hobby has been growing, and a lot of high quality koi are coming in from Japan. Once hobbyists get a little experience under their belts, they feel they can spend more money on a better-looking fish; so the American breeder has to compete with the Japanese breeder for these more selective customers,” said Ben Plonski, owner of Laguna Koi Ponds in Laguna Beach, Calif.
“Japan still produces the best looking koi, so the American breeder has a tough job,” he said. “In general, [however,] domestic koi are a lot stronger and more disease-resistant than the Japanese imports, so beginner hobbyists will have much better success with domestic koi.”
According to Joe Pawlak, president of Blackwater Creek Koi Farms Inc. in Eustis, Fla., the trend is going toward more U.S.-raised fish versus imported fish. He also sees increased demand for goldfish that look like koi.
“We have a sanke gold and a black opal shubunkin; you would swear they were koi,” said Pawlak, who is working on trademarks. “We debuted them at Koi America. They are in limited supply right now.”
Due to their flaming American colors of red, white and blue, the sanke gold were chosen for a ride on the Atlantis space shuttle mission in July 2011. The fish were part of a project comparing the development of eggs in microgravity to eggs developed on the ground.