Importing Koi from Japan Guide (Pros & Cons)

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Importing Koi from Japan, Israel & Overseas – What Are the Pros & Cons?

Showa sanshoku koi swimming
Established koi facilities usually specialize in specific breeds of koi so that they can create higher-value fish. randychiu / CC BY 2.0

Koi are so in-demand as ornamental fish that they are now bred and cultured by experts all around the world. It’s likely that every pond enthusiast has dreamt of stocking a pond with some of the most beautiful and rare koi breeds in the market. Each fish is the product of centuries of research and selection, with cultural roots in the ponds of royalty.

Even the casual koi pond observer will find themselves marveling at the assortment of colors and sizes which complement the fish’s peaceful manner. Their popularity in the Far East is unrivalled as they have been associated with positive symbols and good fortune. Introduction into the rest of the world has only made koi more favorable. Apart from Japan and China, major players in the global market now include North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

In these regions, each established koi breeding facility will usually specialize in specific breeds of koi. This is so they can create higher-value fish and receive recognition from serious collectors and importers. The commercial value of koi is now so high that a single fish from a reputable breeder can cost thousands of dollars. For this reason, it’s important for collectors to be familiar with the practices involved in koi importation. To understand pricing and demand, it would be prudent to do some research on the many types of koi and where to find them.  

Koi Varieties & Where to Find Them

A jumbo koi
If you’re looking for jumbo koi, you should first take a look at Japanese koi breeding facilities. KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

The most popular koi varieties hail from Japan. This koi-breeding powerhouse is home to fish culture facilities that go back generations. Many have techniques and selection processes that make their koi genetically unique and physically robust. If you’re after jumbo-sized koi with distinct coloration and expressive patterns, this is where you’ll first look. Keep in mind that those raised in facilities producing award-winning fish tend to be extremely costly. However, these may have established connections with fish stores in your country, to which they supply cheaper koi en masse.

If you’re new to koi, it would be helpful to familiarize yourself with the Japanese terms for their domesticated breeds. Based on physical features, most Japanese koi are designated under a “Gosanke” variety, which includes Kohaku, Taisho Sanshoku (Sanke), and Showa Sanshoku (Showa Sanke). Websites of breeding facilities should include a detailed description of available fish. This would include the breed (and indication of hybridization, if applicable), length, birth date, weight, and distinguishing features.

Apart from these excellent breeds, there are hundreds of other attractive varieties. Breeders in the US and Europe do produce high-standard koi as well. They are often worth considering as they may have more reasonable prices and may be physically closer (which could mean reduced transportation time) to your location. Note that these may differ from the Japanese varieties in terms of size, fin type, hardiness, and resistance to diseases.

The Basics of Koi Importation

If you’ve never imported live fish before, the full importation process can be daunting. Depending on the federal laws of your area, koi importation can be costly as both shipping and health inspection requirements can add up. Each state or country usually has its own laws regarding the importation of live animals, so you are advised to check with the fish and wildlife sector of your local law enforcement office.

Keep in mind that requirements may also differ depending on the source facility, order quantity, and means of transportation used to ship your koi. Below is a brief outline of the koi importation process, but we encourage you to confirm the process via your chosen facility and local government requirements. 

1) Contact with source facility

The first step is getting in contact with the koi farm, either through their website, telephone or in person! KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

This is an important first step in the process. It may be possible to simply add fish to your cart through the online website of a foreign facility, but we urge you to get in contact with them first. An e-mail or phone call may reveal just how responsible they are as exporting breeders and how transparent they are about the process. You may ask for a full catalogue of available fish or even request for recent pictures, just for peace of mind. Established rapport would also come in handy whenever there are shipment issues later on.

Furthermore, it helps to check reviews and get in contact with locals who have successfully imported fish from the source facility. Do be aware that there are scams out there and that they are able to mimic the communication templates used by actual breeders. Legitimate breeders will be honest about the best time of the year to import koi, and they may even urge you to wait so that the fish reach a more robust size.

Experienced exporting facilities may provide costly services as they will have likely reviewed the legal requirements for your area. Some may even provide guidance on authorization and health certificate needs for your specific locality. Don’t forget to request quotations on importation fees, which should cover quarantine and health certificate costs from their end, shipping costs (usually per box of fish), and possibly customs clearance fees as well.

2) Application for license/authorization to import live fish

Depending on where you import your koi from, there could be additional customs that apply or licenses requirements. KoiQuestion / CC BY 2.0

You may need to apply, as a business or individual, for a license to import live animals. Requirements will again differ per state or country and will be based on your purpose of importation. Large orders of ornamental coldwater fish, such as koi, will usually require a biosecurity plan that outlines your quarantine measures and standard operating procedure in the event of disease outbreaks.

Depending on your location, application forms may be available through your government websites. Additional guidelines for submission and exceptions to the license requirement should also be indicated there. In some cases, an individual license to keep non-native freshwater fish for ornamental purposes is not required (see info for the US here; see info for the UK here).

3) Review legal process

Keep in mind that the wildlife importation rules of your local law enforcement unit may differ from those required for customs clearance. Don’t wait until you have already placed an order to review the full legal process.

A health certificate to import koi, another health certificate from the place of origin, notifications/declarations of importation and pending arrival at specific ports of entry, and a veterinary entry document (all of which incur their own costs) may be required for the release of your shipment.

4) Preparation for arrival & quarantine

Koi in quarantine
Be ready to quarantine your koi when they arrive. They may need to stay in quarantine for several months if any outbreaks occur. randychiu / CC BY 2.0

Once you have all the necessary papers and have informed the relevant authorities, you will need to prepare for the arrival of your fish. As live animals, their survival is time sensitive and any delays in pick-up or unpacking can compromise their health. Make arrangements for swift pick-up and always double-check the location of the entry port. It would be wise to have a backup plan in case of any emergencies on the day of arrival.

Be ready to quarantine your koi. Experienced importers usually have a dedicated facility with as few points of contamination as possible. Review your locality’s quarantine requirements as some will expect you to maintain strict biosecurity measures. The quarantine facility will also need to support fish for as little as two weeks to several months (if any outbreaks occur), so make sure all tanks and equipment are in good condition.

Advantages of Importing Koi

Tancho kohaku koi
Importing koi allows you to acquire “authentic” purebred koi varieties such as Kohaku koi. KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

By importing koi, you would be fueling the global fish industry and directly financing breeding facilities. They require consumer support as they develop their craft, pursuing more advanced means of rearing koi and improving their quality. Apart from establishing international connections, importation from reputable facilities would also allow individual collectors and businesses to acquire “authentic” purebred koi varieties.

Let’s not forget the bragging rights a koi pond owner would have, knowing that his fish are directly sourced from experts elsewhere. A stunning Kohaku koi straight from Japan would surely incite much admiration, and maybe even envy, from fish collectors near and far. Owners of imported, purebred koi have the chance to introduce them into local bloodlines, enriching genetic diversity. They may also obtain sexually mature males and females to create a steady local supply of a particular breed.

There’s nothing like the quality of large and jumbo koi from award-winning facilities in Japan. Many of these facilities may even be willing to share some of their quarantine and care techniques, especially with importers who visit them in person. Apart from the opportunity to learn from breeders, the mere experience of importing koi is vital for businesses that wish to expand.

Do be warned that importing fish can be quite addicting! You can expect the wait to truly heighten your excitement. Nonetheless, make sure to manage your expectations and delay purchases until you’ve extensively gone over the importation requirements.  

Disadvantages of Importing Koi

A group of koi in a pond
There can be a lot of paperwork involved if you’re making mass koi purchases from third-world countries. Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar / CC BY-SA 2.0

Importation does have its downsides as well. Apart from being challenging and confusing, especially when dealing with non-English-speaking suppliers, there are many things that can go wrong. It can also be extremely costly as there are fees associated with every step of the process. Many hobbyists prefer to deal with local suppliers, even if they can afford the importation costs, due to the reasons listed below.

  • Imported fish can introduce exotic diseases and parasites. Unless quarantine protocol is strictly followed, these may be transmitted to local koi.
  • The required paperwork can be extensive, even in well-developed countries. Imported koi used for ornamental purposes may have minimal requirements, but mass purchases from third-world countries may require documentation every step of the way.
  • In the event of documentation problems, cutting through customs red tape can be a nightmare. Live shipments must be cleared for release quickly, and customs issues upon arrival may result in exorbitant fees.
  • Unless you’ve selected for them in-person or you’re willing to pay premium rates, there’s a lack of certainty as to the exact fish you’ll be getting.
  • Shipping delays can result in fish death.
  • International importation has a global carbon footprint and is seldom the most sustainable option.
  • Local breeders need support too.
  • Purchasers have to be wary of scams when dealing with new or small-time breeding facilities.

Should You Import Koi?

High-quality koi underwater
Some locally-based breeders take the risks of importation themselves, using high-quality imported koi to increase the value of their bloodlines. KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

If importation seems too complicated and costly, there are some great alternatives to consider. The process of purchasing from locally-based breeders would undoubtedly involve a much smoother process. Some of these regularly take the risks of importation themselves and use high-quality imported koi to increase the value of their bloodlines.

It helps to be involved in your local community of pond enthusiasts. You may be lucky enough to find that other hobbyists, collectors, and breeders are able to lump your order in with theirs to save on importation costs. Do always double-check the authenticity of requests and local offers before committing financially.

If you have ample resources and the time to thoroughly review and fulfill the requirements for importation on your own, it’s a terrific option to consider. Most of the disadvantages associated with importing koi can be avoided by dealing with experienced, widely recommended breeders, and by having the foresight to address potential problems before they arise.

Ready to Import?

KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re ready to look into importing some fantastic koi, here are some reliable facilities with years of experience in international trade.

If looking into alternatives, here are some US and EU-based facilities that import koi directly from Japan. Some of them have pre-order programs, through which individual buyers may place requests for Japan-bred koi. Unfortunately, these may have been affected by Covid-19 regulations.

1 thought on “Importing Koi from Japan Guide (Pros & Cons)”

  1. l have two commet cold fish and a sarasa gold fish l had not seen my sarasa gold fish for a while and thought he had died l did a large water change and saw what l thought was his body when l went to lift him out of the water he shot away from me so was very much alive and looked fine no sign of disease.He started to swim with the other Fish then seemed to go into hiding again.l have since added an other sarasa gold fish and a blue orfe all the fish except my shy Sarasa fish are all swimming around fine together and my water checks are all coming back fine.What do you think is happening with my shy sarasa


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