Philly parking lot magnate passes on his passion: Koi fish

Listen 2:18

Joseph Zuritsky, known in Philadelphia for owning a string of downtown parking lots, has had a second life as a breeder of koi fish. That second life is winding down. Zuristsky is donating a bulk of his koi to the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park.

The Shofuso House is one of the finest recreations in America of 17th-century Japanese architecture and craftsmanship. For 60 years, it has overlooked a large natural pond filled with koi.

“They were lower quality fish,” said Zuritsky, CEO of Parkway Corporation who is a Shofuso board member. “The setting here is so absolutely perfect. Even in Japan, this would be considered a beautiful samurai home and garden. It deserved higher quality fish.”

Zuritsky knows his fish. He has bred koi for almost two decades and has been a judge in koi competitions in Japan. The fish, which are basically carp with really good genes, have been bred for splotchy patterns of red, black, and white. There are 40 distinct standards of coloration and pattern, against which competitive fish are judged.

“It’s about the color, the quality of the skin, and where the color falls on the body,” Zuritsky explained, while watching four of his prized fish in a temporary tank set up outside Shofuso. “These fish, the patterns are falling well. That one could have some more white on it, but it’s an absolutely beautiful young female.”

At the kick-off ceremony of the Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual celebration of Japanese culture, Zuritsky announced a donation of koi to the Shofuso House. Last fall, all the subpar fish in the Shofuso pond were removed and relocated, and Zuritsky introduced 32 of his superior koi. He will introduce more as soon as the pond water warms to a mild, springtime temperature.

The donation will be ongoing. Zuritsky has promised to keep the pond stocked with koi from his breeding operation in Carneys Point, New Jersey. For almost two decades, he has bred and sold high-quality koi to discerning hobbyists as a side business — separate from his real estate and parking lot empire.

It was a business of passion that didn’t really make any money.

“We accomplished producing high-quality fish, and I thought I could also make a profit,” he said. “But people looking for high-quality fish do not want fish from America, but from Japan. The mystique is there. These fish are as good as [those of] most breeders in Japan.”

Now 78, he says his children don’t have any interest in raising fish, not for passion or profit. He has donated the farm to Rowan University, which will use it for aquaponic research.

Zuritsky is still able to use the farm to raise a few koi, not for market, but to keep the Shofuso pond stocked and its visitors enchanted.

“They respond to any human being coming to the edge of the pond,” he said. “The fact that you feed them floating food, and their mouth is really under their head — they have to stick their head out of the water to eat. When you see that part of their body out of the water, you can appreciate their beauty.”

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