Koi in South Africa

The Development of Koi Aquaculture in South Africa

Servaas De Kock, Q-Koi Fish Farm (Pty) Ltd, South Africa

Presented at the 16th Annual AKCA Seminar,
June 25&26, 1999 in Orange County, CA, USA



Ever since koi arrived in South Africa in the early 1970s when record has it that Japanese fishermen sold young koi to school kids from fishing trawlers in Cape Town harbour, koi aquaculture was practiced in one or other form locally. Due to a climate that is ideally suited for koi breeding, South Africans have bred and grown koi almost from the start to satisfy the local demand for fish to stock outdoor ponds.

Today, large volumes of koi are bred by back-yard operators and sold to local petshops usually to support their hobby. These koi, mostly the result of uncontrolled mixed breeding that happens in the owner’s home pond, are usually of inferior quality. The so-called "petshop specials". Equally large volumes of low-grade koi are bred by small farms that seem to follow the ill advice of a local academic-turned-fish farmer to use two females and four males to "ensure a colour variation in offspring".

Amidst of this mediocre offering the hobby of koi keeping and koi appreciation developed prompting a demand for high quality koi that could at first only be satisfied by imports from the East. As the koi industry grew, so did the desire and dreams of many serious hobbyist to breed koi of show winning quality. A few keepers-turned-breeders actually succeeded in breeding show winners during the early '90s. This success was largely due to the efforts of breeders like Ronnie Watt, who insisted on the merits of the breeding koi according to the Eastern traditions as the only way to achieve superior results. While Ronnie had success with Goshiki, Goromo and Shiro Utsuri on Qrient Koi Farm near Pretoria, Pierre Jordaan of Dainida Koi Farm in Bloemfontein bred show winning Sensuke Kohaku, while I did well with Showa of Takeda-Dainichi lineage in the Cape.

Geographically spread out as it may, the success of these operations was based on the following unifying principles:

  1. The careful selection of high-quality parent fish and breeding according to variety standards and lineage.
  2. A firm belief in the traditional method of koi breeding that insisted on the culling out of unwanted offspring at as early as possible stage.
  3. The realisation that much had to be learned about all aspects of koi aquaculture, and that the only way to approach it was in a systematic and scientific way.
  4. The agreement that knowledge gained should be freely disseminated amongst each
  5. The agreement to minimum standards of quality, grading and sizing.
  6. The vision to make South Africa a world class producer of koi.

Thus, the foundation of koi aquaculture in South Africa was laid. But it took dedication, commitment to an ideal and entrepreneurial skills to change dreams into business reality.


Orient Koi Farm.

When in 1992 Orient Koi Farm, a former goldfish facility located in Cullinan near the city of Pretoria, started breeding koi with a small but high-quality breeding stock and a breeding programme guided by Ronnie Watt, he succeeded in producing a small but promising crop of koi of several varieties.

In the second year of operation the farm bred a koi of Goshiki variety which was awarded the title of Supreme Champion Size 1 at the 4th National South African Koi Show in 1993. In subsequent years Orient Koi farm again competed with its own-bred koi against the imported entries for the National show and repeatedly won titles and numerous placings.

The ultimate proof that quality koi could be produced in South Africa came when an Orient Goshiki took 2nd place at the highly competitive 1998 Shinkokai Show in Japan and the two 1st and two 2nd places awarded to Orient's Koi at the 1998 German National Koi Show. Ronnie's commitment was bearing fruit and his dreams became reality.

Q-Koi Fish Farm.

The seed of my interest in koi was planted when a few small 10 cm (4 inch) koi were “rigorously” selected at our local petshop for a small, 30cm (1 ft) deep garden pond and were sold back to the same dealer six months later as a healthy 20 cm (8 inch) Matsuba at a respectful 300% profit, which was promptly spent on koi food.

The seed geminated in 1989 when I was rummaging through what remained of a large petshop in Silicon Valley in the wake of the earth quake that hit San Francisco the day before, and happen to discover a backdated copy of Rinko with an article by Terry Sole on the newly formed South African Koi Keeper Society. On my return to South Africa, I traced Terry, attended the first South African Koi Show in 1990 and joined the Society.

My dream became reality when in October 1993 the first vineyards were uprooted near Bonnievale in the Western Cape to make way for mud ponds. Q-Koi Fish Farm was born and has since grown to become the largest koi breeding business in the country. Now it is involved in all aspects of the koi industry; from breeding, importing, and exporting, to retailing and wholesaling of koi and related products.

The original 22 mud ponds at Q-Koi that held a mere 20,000 cubic meters of water has now been extended to 42 ponds with a total capacity of almost 100,000 cubic meters. By incorporating the facility at Orient Koi Farm and others elsewhere in the country, the total pond space available became a staggering 250,000 cubic meters. While this might be difficult to imagine, the koi keeper can equate this to having about 15,000 fair size koi ponds for his pleasure in his back yard.


The Breeding Process.

The Q-Koi philosophy is that in formal koi aquaculture - irrespective of the market opportunities and demands - the quest must be to produce koi which meet the exacting standards for the respective koi varieties and Q-Koi sees itself as a guardian and promoter of the genetic treasure inherent in each and every koi. Because of this, the two koi farms are committed to breeding with bloodline parent fish which are principally obtained from breeders (not dealers!) in Japan and Taiwan. For example, our Sanke are predominantly out of the Matsunosuke and Higarashi lines, the Shiro Utsuri out of Takeda, Kohaku out of Dainichi and Sensuke, Showa out of Takeda-Dainichi and Hikari Mujimono out of the Jirosuke and Hirasawa lines. Such bloodline parent koi have a far greater genetic ability to produce the desired body shape, quality of colour and quality of pattern.

In South Africa the spawning season generally extends from early spring (September) to late summer (March). Parent fish which have spent the winter in their earthen ponds, are netted in August and taken to the hatchery where their breeding condition is carefully monitored. The breeding is staggered with three to five breeding groups being spawned in the same time frame. Spawning takes place under natural conditions without the use of hormones or any artificial manipulations. Three days after hatching the young fry are released in the mud ponds which have been prepared previously to encourage the growth of organisms that will be the initial food supply of the fry. Pond are covered with net as protection against birds and other aquatic predators such as platanna (Cape clawed toad, Xenophus laevis) and the nymphs of dragon fly. Calculated feeding of quality high-protein food commences when the fry are five days old, and the growth, feeding and development of the fry monitored daily.

The Culling Process.

The weaker but better fry must be given the best chance of survival and development and this is done through at least two culling exercises. The fry which does not satisfy the criteria of their variety or which show deformities must be culled. As much as 50% of the harvest might be eliminated in the first culling when the fish are three to four weeks old (2-3 cm, 1 inch) and the same percentage-in the second culling which usually takes place about one month later.

After the culling stages, the young koi which are then about 7cm in length, are submitted to a first grading exercise. Those which meet the minimum market criteria are removed and housed in clear water ponds where, with a different feeding regime, their colours are promoted to achieve depth and lustre prior to sale. The keepable young koi are returned to the mud pond to await a second and even a third grading in which development is monitored and all but the most promising show quality youngsters are demoted to the sales ponds. The second grading will produce the medium grade koi, the third grading will produce the high-grade fish. The remaining young koi will be grown on for at least one year and from their ranks will come the top-grade koi.

Koi aquaculture can be a heartbreak affair. No koi aquaculturist can ever be assured of the result of the quality 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.

The Mud Pond

We tend to follow the Japanese use of the term "mud pond" to indicate the earthen type of dams that we find best suited for koi farming. Due to the high incidence of predation from birds, reptiles, and insects, it is vital to cover all ponds with some form of net protection if you do not wish to see your best and most brightest coloured koi disappear down the gullet of a heron, cormorant or platanna. We tend to make fry ponds smaller, 700-1500 m2 by 1.5 meter deep, and cover them completely with hail netting that will keep everything out right down to dragon flies. Grow-out ponds are larger, 1500-4500 m2 by 1.5-2 m deep, and will be covered with a lighter and larger mesh mono-filament net. The depth being controlled as the fish grows.

The management of these mud ponds are the key to successful koi farming and it is what makes back-yard breeding so much different from koi aquaculture. It is why the efforts of hobbyist breeders often end in total failure.

We need to understand that the traditional method of koi farming developed in the East over many generations of struggling farmers with limited space and no technology to assist them. There were no books on koi aquaculture to study, no pH meters, and antibiotics. Just the knowledge of one generation passed onto the next from father to son. Methods evolved and it is fair to assume that most successful koi breeders of the past knew what to do without knowing why.

Now let us look at what happens if we should stock our well prepared 1000 m2 mud pond with fry. A good female can quite easily produce 300 000 eggs and with a fertilisation rate of 85% being quite common under natural conditions, some 255 000 fry will hatch. Let us assume some 15% mortality due to genetical and congenital abnormalities, we will have about 220 000 fry of 6 mm (1/4 in) in length and in a few days’ time they will be 10 mm ( 7/16 in). In three more weeks, they should average 30 mm (1.2 in). One would expect that the stocking density of 150 fish per m3 will be acceptable considering their size, but is it?

Without going into the dynamics of the daily requirements of our fry, we will see that by day 21 the total mass of our fry would have grown to be about 120 kg. In order to achieve this a total of 185 kg of food had to be consumed — a staggering 8.8 kg (19 lb) per day! Even if we could — it is not done. Considering that 340 grams (0,22 ppm) nitrogenous waste will be produced per day and 7 kg of oxygen consumed, it can clearly be seen that either the fish will die from starvation or become ill from polluted water. Providing sufficient food and aeration is the key to success, but it is not possible. Stocking for future growth is the key.

What really happens is that the better fry will most probably be the weaker and smaller ones and they will be more adversely affected by the lack of food — the most likely scenario. Since the ponds' natural food is soon consumed and the artificial food provided by the farmer is not adequate, the stronger fry will actively hunt their siblings. The fry

density will rapidly decrease to less than 15 fry per m3 due to starvation and cannibalism. The pond population will be continuously under stress and should conditions suddenly change, even more deaths will occur. The more fish you lose, the worse the ratio of good to poor fry will become.


If you should harvest 15 000 fish for first culling, you should be thankful and regard yourself lucky. By the end of 2nd culling, and lots of manual labour you may have 3500 youngsters. Next time try to split the fry into two ponds, or three or four...


In koi aquaculture the bottom line is this: Invest in quality brood stock and breed according to varieties. Invest heavily in the correct facilities. Invest heavily in knowledge and understanding of koi. Trust the traditional method of koi breeding. Have the courage of your conviction to follow your dream, but never borrow money from family or friends. Never even think of commercial koi breeding without proper planning, sufficient cash in the bank, knowledge and understanding of the many facets of aquaculture, and most important: a love for koi.

Koi aquaculture in South Africa has come a long way since its early beginnings in the 70s. Not only have we managed to breed koi of admirable quality that can compete anywhere in the world, but we have also managed to bridge the gap of the collective experience of generations of koi farmers by committing ourselves to studying all aspects of koi aquaculture.



For the uninitiated. AKCA is the Associated Koi Clubs of America


This is an historical document. I republish this since there is plenty a lesson to be learned for future koi farmers.

Much has changed in South Africa since these prolific koi breeding years, when a multitude of koi farm start-ups blossomed all over the country, and most promptly disappeared.

Q-Koi Fish Farm was one of those who, after exporting its 1000th box of fish in 2000, had to finally close in 2002 due to the koi herpesvirus plague spreading throughout the world.

Minor punctuation typos were corrected. Capitalization of the word koi was removed.