The ethics of koi breeding

A distinction must be made between a hobbyist who spawns his koi and a breeder of koi. A breeder will have a formal koi farming environment (a hatchery, mud dams and stock dams) and a breeding strategy that includes utilising specific breeding stock. A koi keeper might spawn his pond koi and rear the fry at home in a secondary pond. He has very little pond space and the demands for constrain is much more.

Because koi is created by a highly selective process of human intervention, you have to exhibit a certain ethic in producing them or else a population will soon digress to the ordinary by interbreeding and following the rules of engagement of Darwinian warfare. 

Koi has become a commodity in constant demand; hence many dealers and breeders have no scruples to offer stock and make a few bucks on the way. There is somehow justification for outlets to accept all the surviving fry from a home spawn and palm them off at profit to the inexperienced and unexpected public. They add the tag “Japanese Koi” with no shame. Their argument being that, “yes, they are cheap, but my profit is higher.” The practice is the same as having a mix of dog breeds at home and unethical allow them to interbreed, and worse, for your profit.

At some stage or other, a koi keeper is bound to dabble in spawning, hatching, rearing and culling. For that reason, breeders need to approach koi culture with the necessary ethics in mind to not only ensure their survival but also to the advancement of the Nishikigoi label.

This demands constraint and recognition of a few ethics.

 Ethic 1: Do koi justice in all aspects. The results of the spawning exercise, whether those young koi are kept or sold or given away, must do koi as a species full justice. The object of breeding should be refinement not regression. In plain language: only if the youngsters meet the minimum of criteria for their variety ought they be allowed to survive. Never, ever retain koi just for the sake of keeping them alive. Do not sell the product of your culling alive for any reason

Ethic 2: Assure the well-being of the parents. The health and well-being of the breeding parents may never be placed at risk. The price we pay for our enthusiasm to breed must never be the injury or death of the parent fish.

 Ethic 3: Do not attempt “new” varieties. It is futile to attempt to breed a “new” variety. The basic guidelines for breeding varieties must be followed. Refinement and development should be the prime goal. Senseless crossing of varieties a taboo. Leave such attempts to the professional breeder who will have a specific strategy and an outcome in mind. And even if you purposely do it, do not feed those half-breeds to the market.

 Ethic 4: Deliberate your motives. Deliberate the objective of the spawning. If the objective is to satisfy your curiosity about the spawning process, then rather abandon it. If it is to make some quick and easy money, then question your sincerity. If it is to learn to appreciate the intricacy of koi's genetics and the rather painful learning process of appreciating the development stages of a koi, do it.

The “hit and miss” approach which is a sad feature of many novice attempts at breeding will not produce good results, if any at all. The dictum is that “Pretty koi parents do not make pretty koi babies.” Don't select the males and females on the strength of their patterns alone - search for those with good body shape, good quality colour and the best scalation. It is of course preferable to spawn only with breeding stock that have some kind of assured genetic ability to produce the desired body shape, quality of colour and ideal pattern. There are very few koi keepers anywhere in the Western world who can boast of having proper breeding groups. The purchase price of a good breeding group is prohibitive. The novice breeder must therefore select as parents those adult fish with the strongest qualities of their specific variety.

 It is unwise to use your show quality koi for breeding. The risk of taking you valuable breeding fish to a show weekend is not sensible. The spawning is quite a violent process, with the males repeatedly nudging and bumping the female so that she will release the eggs. Bruises, cuts, torn fins and stress are inevitable. Experienced koi breeders will not only make careful preparation to get their breeding fish into top shape before spawning by feeding them till they are well-fleshed out (as opposed to “fattening” the fish up for show), they will also make extensive provision for the post-traumatic recovery of the fish, specifically with a feeding programme of high protein, easily digestible high-nutrition food. As much care must go into preparing the parent fish as for nursing the spawned parents back to prime health.

It is futile to want to grow on all of the fry of a spawning. The fry which do not satisfy the criteria of their variety or which show deformities have to be culled. It becomes such an achievement for a koi keeper to spawn 100 000 eggs and to hatch 50 000 of them that in the flush of excitement and sense of achievement, he could easily ignore the reality that as many as 60% of the hatched fry ought to be culled within weeks of hatching. By breeding from the best parent stock and following the strictest of culling criteria, one breeder calculated that after three culling operations, he would only retain about 600 youngsters out of every 100 000 fry, and of those only 20 would have probable show quality.

The hobbyist koi breeder can never be assured of results so far as quality is concerned, and it takes but a single error in the management of the fry to result in their mass death - just as a single error in the culling criteria of the fry could perhaps eliminate the only potential champion! The breeding and culling must therefore be well-motivated, well-planned and well-executed and done with conviction and courage and faith.

These undertakings of the breeder, be he a hobbyist or not, must be within the framework of why Nishikigoi are what they are. Without having respect for koi, where they come from, and walking the tight ethical path, we are opportunistic and greedy. And that will eventually lead to no good.

Servaas de Kock

(Extracted in part from Chapter 2. Starting a Koi Farm. In Koi Culture by Servaas de Kock and Ronnie Watt.)