What Are Good Saltwater Fish For Beginners
What makes a fish a good candidate for beginners?
Before we get to our list of suggested fish, let's discuss what attributes we used to help us decide which fish to recommend.
With compatibility, we consider how well the fish will do in a community setting. The two things you want to consider is whether the fish will prey on other fish in the tank or how aggressive it is likely to act towards other fish in the same tank.
In general, saltwater fish are more sensitive to tank fluctuations than freshwater fish. That's because in nature, fresh water fish are more used to changing conditions in their water than saltwater fish would ever have to be. Compared to saltwater fish in the ocean, freshwater fish are used to smaller water volumes that have greater fluctuations in quality and temperature. That said, there are some saltwater fish that are a little more adaptable than others. We'll use this as a measure of how good a fish is for beginners.
With feeding, one can make another broad statement in saying that pound for pound, saltwater fish normally expend more energy than freshwater fish in order to live. Saltwater fish have a lot more work to do to maintain their proper body chemistry. But just eating more isn't problematic. The problem one sees with many saltwater fish is their requirement for live food. Good beginner fish aren't that picky with what they will eat.
Some saltwater fish are just going to be much more expensive than others. For example, using prices off of LiveAquaria.com (Doctors Smith and Foster's live fish site), we can compare the following prices for saltwater fish (for comparison purposes, let's stick with fish that would grow to a maximum size of 2-3" in the tank):
Now you can see why we include damselfish and gobies in our list of suggested fish for absolute beginners. Look at it this way. Of course we all hope for the best and would not want any of your fish to suffer an ill fate. However, if they did, wouldn't you be happy to know that you hadn't blown your budget and that you could invest in a second set of fish?
From this example alone, we see that just the color of the fish dictates a pretty big price difference. Fine for the serious collector but not a great idea for the absolute beginner! By the way, the Golden Hamlet is quite a beauty compared to the Indigo Hamlet. Since things can be rocky in the beginning when just starting out a Marine tank, the fish price should definitely be a consideration.
You don't have to shoot for a nano tank (a tank that is 20-30 gallons in size) to be worried about the fish size. First of all, remember that the size of that cute little juvenile that you pick up at the store (1-2 inches in length) may grow up to be one or two feet in length! All fish start out tiny! The adult size correlates directly with your tank size since you must provide enough space for your fish to be comfortable. So with our beginner list, we start out with fish that shouldn't outgrow your tank overnight.
Space requirements are tied closely to the fish's final adult size but you also need to take into account the fish's normal behavior. Marine fish, as a whole, require more breathing room than their freshwater companions. Within the marine world, you have rolling stones and fish that pretty much stay put (well, they don't stay put but they're comfortable in small tidal pools). With that in mind, our list of starter fish only includes fish that would be comfortable in a smaller tank to begin with.
Good Saltwater Fish for Beginners
- Clownfish are from the same family as damselfish and enjoy basically the same ease of care as damselfish. Clownfish can be aggressive towards other fish in the tank, particularly tomato clownfish. Price range is $7.99 to $34.99.
- Blennies need plenty of hiding places but in return will demonstrate easy appetites (they'll eat just about anything you drop in the tank for them). Price range is $10.99 to $32.99
- Crabs are a great invertebrate choice for a beginner's saltwater tank. Choices include hermit crabs, arrow crabs, and porcelain crabs. Price range is $0.99 to $23.99.
- Damselfish are great for beginners because they're small (for the most part under 3" in tanks although some species will get up to 8"), cheap, and hardy. Couple that with the fact that they come in vibrant, electric blue and striped colors. Damselfish sure don't act like "damsels in distress;" they can be aggressive towards other fish in the tank. Price range is $3.99 to $18.99.
- Gobies are relatively small (usually staying under 3" in tanks). Price range is $6.99 to $29.99. (We're not including the extremely rare Griessingei Gobi which will cost you $149.99 to own.)
- Shrimp demonstrate interesting behavior in the tank. For example, cleaner shrimp eat potential parasites off of fish - it's neat to watch fish and shrimp interact. They are relatively hardy but you'll need to watch copper and nitrate levels. Price range is $4.99 to $39.99.
- Wrasses are usually categorized as reef-safe or for fish-only tanks. These beautiful fish showcase sherbet colorations not seen in many of the other fish species. Wrasses are larger than other fish in our list and prefer live food. Price range is $10.99 to $119.99.
Saltwater fish that aren't great for Beginners
Briefly, here's a list of fish that you shouldn't pick the first time you start up a Marine tank (and why):
- Seahorses are picky, picky eaters. They often won't eat anything other than live food (brine shrimp and fish fry). They also need a very quiet environment.
- Jellyfish require multiple feedings daily, for starters. Besides that, the more serious issue is keeping them safely enclosed without turning their extremely delicate gelatinous bodies into "chopped liver." You could buy specialized (i.e. expensive) tanks but don't a couple of sea urchins or starfish sound good instead?
- Octopus. Just because you can find these for sale doesn't mean you should buy them. There's a reason why most people only see these creatures at the zoo.
- Sharks and Rays are the perfect backdrop for a James Bond movie but exceptionally difficult to keep in a house setting due to the sheer tank size you'd be dealing with. Unless you can devote your entire basement to keeping your new prize beauties, keep away.
- Scorpionfish and Toad Fish. Exotic looking? Yes. Hardy? Sure. Easy to handle? Of course not! Those dorsal-fin spines are packed to gills (so to speak) with very painful neurotoxins. They are also avid predators and will not play nice with tank mates, eating most anything that can fit in its mouth.
- Clams require specific lighting requirements and often do not do well with as much water movement as the rest of your reef tank may require.
- Eels need much space and plenty of food.
- Angelfish might be a surprise to you since they appear ubiquitous in the marine tank. But for the beginner, angelfish are problematic because they can grow to be quite large and are usually very aggressive towards other fish in the tank.
- Pipefish are similar to Seahorses; they've simply been "unbent" through evolution. The same feeding and care issues come into play with pipefish.
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