If you’re considering a saltwater aquarium then you probably already have some ideas of the fish you want to keep. You may not know all their names but you at least have a mental image of what they look like and can picture them swimming happily up and down your tank already. But before you get too far ahead of yourself, let’s take a closer look at those fish and see if you’re headed for a tropical paradise or a underwater disaster.
What makes a good starter fish?
First, we need to determine just what it is that makes a fish suitable for the beginner in the first place. Meeting every single one of these criteria for each fish isn’t critical but doing so will ultimately mean less problems later.
Small Size- probably the most important, you need fish that will fit happily in your aquarium.
Friendly- you also need fish that won’t kill each other.
Hardy- some fish are extremely delicate so avoiding them is key.
Affordable- it’s your first tank and mistakes are prone to happen; at least you can avoid them being costly mistakes.
Easy to Feed- the ocean is full of specialty feeders that are best left to the experts.
Easy to Obtain- getting just the fish you want is nice, but for some species you could be waiting a long time.
recommended species: Ocellaris Clown, Percula Clown
Clownfish are possibly the most recognized and most desired of all the marine fish. Nearly all clowns for sale these days are captive bred, making them a hardy bunch and a great choice for your first foray into a saltwater tank. Besides the classic look, clownfish come in various other patterns as well as some color variations. The one drawback is that clowns can be somewhat aggressive. Furthermore, while clownfish are well known for their tendency to live amongst the tentacles of anemones they will get along perfectly fine without one.
recommended species: Clown Gobies*, Watchmen Gobies*, Neon Gobies*
Gobies come in a multitude of shapes, colors, and patterns along with varying behavioral traits. Some are free swimming while others prefer to perch on outcroppings hopping from one spot to another and still others borrow into the sand to make their home or just to search for a meal. What they all have in common is a small size, peaceful temperament, and relatively easy care requirements. They often bring quite a bit of personality along as well.
recommended species: Bicolor Blenny, Combtooth Blenny, Starry Blenny, Sailfin Blennies*
Blennies are small bottom dwelling fish that feed primarily on microalgae which makes them a great addition to most any tank (cause let’s face it- who doesn’t have algae) but will often happily gobble down anything else you throw in the tank. Like a lot of saltwater fish, blennies get along fine with other fish but have a tendency to fight with their own kind as as such should be kept one per tank.
recommended species: Blue Chromis, Blue/Green Chromis
If you’re looking for a schooling fish then chromis are the choice to make. Despite being damsels, chromis are very peaceful and will get along great with other peaceful fish as well as invertebrates and corals. They’re good for luring out shy fish as well who view their willingness to swim in the open as a sign that it’s safe to venture out. As mentioned earlier, they enjoy being in schools, so if you intend to keep them get at least three.
recommended species: Six Line Wrasse, Four Line Wrasse, Fairy Wrasses*
The wrasse category occupies a wide variety of fish in every color combination you can imagine as well as some interesting shapes and behaviors. Wrasses are very active fish and will brighten up any aquarium as they dart in and out of the rocks searching for a snack. When selecting a wrasse do note that some are skilled predators that may make a quick meal of any shrimp or crabs your tank houses.
recommended species: Spotted Cardinalfish, Banggai Cardinalfish
Cardinalfish are docile and peaceful fish that have been popular additions to marine aquariums for years. They may, however, quarrel with their own kind. Therefore, in smaller tanks only individuals should be kept whereas in a larger setup a school can be maintained without aggression. Several species of cardinalfish are now being bred in captivity which means healthier specimens adapted to aquarium life.
recommended species: Coral Beauty, Flame Angelfish, Lemonpeel Angelfish
Not to be confused with their larger cousins, dwarf angelfish remain (as the name suggests) relatively small and are generally easier to feed and care for. Dwarf angels fit into a community setting well and will get along with most other fish just fine. However, they may fight with other dwarf angels which means only one should be kept per tank. Furthermore some individuals have been known to nip at corals.
recommended species: Firefish, Purple Firefish, Scissortail Dartfish
Also known as dartfish, firefish can move amazingly fast when the need arises; usually to hide from potential danger. For this reason a good cover and plenty of places to hide are needed to prevent them from jumping out of the tank. As for their temperament, firefish are very peaceful and easygoing fish and should be kept with tankmates of a similar demeanor.
Basslets and Dottybacks
recommended species: Royal Gamma Basslet, Bicolor Dottyback, Purple dottyback
These are two different groups of fish, but their characteristics are very similar. In fact, several of them even look similar. These small active fish need lots of rockwork for exploring and hiding to feel at home. As with many marine fish, they tend to fight with their own kind meaning only one should be kept per tank. Likewise they are tough little fish and will hold their own against larger tankmates. Finally, it’s worth noting that they may eat smaller invertebrates such as ornamental shrimp.
*several varieties available
A Word About Compatibility
While most species of fish can be separated in to a few categories of temperament, such as peaceful or aggressive, every individual is different. Furthermore, there are lots of complex factors that can determine if fish get along or not. Here are some general rules to help you out:
•Avoid putting together fish that have similar appearances (colors/patterns/sizes/body shapes) even if they’re not closely related.
•If multiple individuals of the same species are to be kept introduce them at the same time.
•Some aggression can be curtailed by rearranging the rocks (to disrupt established territories).
•Overcrowding can make even peaceful fish act out.
•When deciding on the order to introduce fish, start with the most peaceful and work your way toward the most aggressive.
•Finally, some individual fish are simply bullies and may need to be moved to a new home.
Fish to Avoid
There are lots of fish in the ocean (zing!) but not all of them are suitable for the home aquarium, particularly that of the beginner. Here’s a rundown of some of the most commonly desired as well as some that appear frequently for sale. In general, these fish either get too large, are too aggressive, or require specialized care.
Hawkfish- Named for their tendency to perch on an outcropping then swoop down on prey, hawkfish are likely to eat anything that will fit in their mouth. And it may not look like it, but that have a big mouth!
Anglerfish- Anglerfish are just like the hawkfish in that they will likely eat their tankmates. Feeding them can also be tricky.
Anthias- Anthias are a tricky group with a couple of problems. Some get too big, some are from deeper waters and require subdued lighting, many have complex social structures that lead to problems, and most are picky eaters requiring multiple feedings a day. All in all it’s not a good group for beginners.
Damsels- Damsels are small, cheap, and hardy which makes them seem like great starter fish and are in fact often recommended for these reasons. But there’s a problem- they’re aggressive, very aggressive. Damsels are likely to claim the entire tank for themselves and harass any other fish to death.
Tangs- There are lots of different tangs in all shapes and sizes, but in general they get too large for the average aquarium. They’re also a bit more delicate and require a stable tank and proper diet.
Mandarins- The biggest problem with mandarins is feeding them. They’re very slow methodical feeders that will cruise the rockwork looking for live plankton to eat. They often completely ignore any prepared foods that are offered and eventually starve to death.
Sharks/Rays- Many people dream of keeping a shark, but the reality is even the smallest sharks require a small pond to be happy. Furthermore, sharks and rays are rather delicate animals that require expert care.
Eels- Like sharks, eels need a lot of room. Not only that, they’ll likely eat anything they can fit in their mouth and are best kept in their own dedicated setup.
Puffers- Puffers get quite large and can’t be kept with most invertebrates as they tend to eat them. Their teeth also grow continually requiring specialty foods and care to wear them down.
Lionfish- They get large and tend to eat smaller fish and invertebrates. They also have venomous spines that can sting you or other tankmates.
Seahorses/Pipefish- Seahorses and pipefish, much like mandarins, are very slow and peaceful creatures that require a tank dedicated to their needs.
Angels– As mentioned with dwarf angels, full sized angels get pretty big and have more demanding care requirements. In particular, feeding them a proper diet can be challenging.
Butterflyfish- Much like the larger angels, they are fairly delicate and more importantly difficult to feed properly.
While it may seem like a long list, there are many MANY other fish out there that find their way into dealers’ tanks regularly. Some are suitable for the beginner, but most aren’t. If you happen across a species not listed here that you wish to keep make sure you do some research on its characteristics and needs before making a commitment.
When it comes time to decide what you wish to keep in your saltwater aquarium, it’s best to put together a detailed plan first of both which species your tank will house as well as the order they will be introduced in. Once you have that together and your tank is ready you can finally begin adding fish. Just remember to take things slow. When it comes to marine tanks, only bad things happen fast. Patience is key. Giving the tank time to adjust after each addition will go a long way towards ensuring your success.