Passions: The World According to Carp

Philadelphia parking magnate Joe Zuritsky has a little obsession he’s devoted millions of hours and piles of cash to: breeding the perfect koi

In 2002, Zuritsky purchased 43 acres in Penns Grove. Over the next year, he transformed the spread into a modern koi farm, with 33 mud ponds and four huge greenhouses filled with state-of-the-art equipment. It now looks not unlike a low-grade waste treatment facility. A small house where farm manager Mat McCann lives with his family is nearby. A giant pool has been constructed inside the largest greenhouse; two Volkswagen Beetle-sized filtration systems churn and wheeze at one end, while huge koi, some the size of cocker spaniels, glide through the water. The heat inside approximates that of a bad day in Equatorial Guinea. “Higher temperature, up to a point, means better growth,” explains McCann.

Most of the property is taken up by the mud pond, where the koi grow after the spring spawn. Over the summer, millions of offspring with be evaluated and, if found deficient, allowed to die. In September, the 15,000 or so survivors will be harvested: pulled from the ponds, identified, sorted by size, and, eventually, sold. The best fish won’t go on the market, though. They’ll remain on the farm to improve the bloodlines. “What we’re essentially trying to do here is manage an ecosystem,” says McCann. “The goal is to produce a grand champion,” a koi so perfect and rare that it could fetch $100,000 on the open market. The chances of that happening? “Once in a lifetime,” he snorts.

Not exactly great odds — but not exactly the point, either. And recently there has been estimable success. Zuritsky’s Quality Koi has quickly garnered a reputation among enthusiasts as a source of highly desirable fish. Last year, when the editors at the Journal of Japanese Gardening asked experts to name the most reputable English-speaking koi dealers in the world, Zuritsky’s farm was eighth on the list.

There is, however, one question that hovers over it all — all the money and time and energy spent. What, by God, would Joe Zuritsky do if he actually accomplished all his goals? What if the farm becomes a viable business? What if he produces koi comparable to those in Japan? What if he breeds a grand champion? For someone with an insatiable appetite for the search, for the chase, what then? What happens to Ahab if Moby Dick stops swimming?

It is, of course, a completely ridiculous question. Perfection isn’t possible, and near perfection ain’t likely. And so, on an overcast spring afternoon, as he sits in his office once again talking about koi, Zuritsky brushes it aside. Instead, ever the enthusiast, he overwhelms with the need to share his knowledge and passion. He pulls out books. He prints out articles he’s written. There is always something to learn. There is always something to be excited about. A pursuit with no endgame.

At this moment, Zuritsky is very excited about one particular fish he owns. It’s a female kohaku, with a three-step red-and-white pattern and a fat, bullet-shaped body. Because it’s so valuable, and because travel can stress a koi, Zuritsky had it raised in Japan by a friend. Now almost two-and-a-half-feet long, the fish is finally with Zuritsky.

It is, he says, a very good fish. But still not the perfect fish. “I don’t think it can win grand champion, but it could win in its size and category,” he says, the overgrown seven-year-old emerging once again. “And that would be very satisfying.”