WHAT ARE GOOD SALTWATER FISH FOR BEGINNERS

Written by Katherine Barrington Updated January 22, 2014
What makes a saltwater fish a good candidate for beginners?
The decision to start a saltwater tank is not a quick or easy one. Even hobbyists who have maintained freshwater tanks successfully will admit that a saltwater tank is not a simple undertaking. The water chemistry alone is much more difficult to maintain in a saltwater tank. There's no reason to make things exponentially more difficult by picking temperamental fish. In this article, we will provide a list of good starter fish for the beginner. Before we provide the list, we'll discuss how we decided whether a fish would be a good candidate for the beginner. We also include a short warning list of fish that you should pass over tour first time around with a marine environment. We'll conclude this article with a short list of online sources for marine livestock.
 
What makes a fish a good candidate for beginners?
 
Before talking about specific fish which are recommended for the novice saltwater aquarium hobbyist, it is wise to think about what attributes make a certain species of fish a good choice. The attributes under consideration include: compatibility, hardiness, feeding requirements, price and size.
 
Compatibility

The term “compatibility” is used to describe how well any given species of fish gets along with other species in a community setting. In regard to saltwater fish you need to think about whether the fish will prey on other fish in the tank (particularly smaller fish) and whether it is likely to act aggressive. Many fish that quality as “community” fish can be aggressive when not given adequate space, and two males of the same species will often fight with each other. The key is to choose a species in which neither of these issues is very significant.

Hardy/Undemanding Constitution

In general, saltwater fish are more sensitive to tank fluctuations than freshwater fish. That's because, in nature, freshwater 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. Hardiness and adaptability are important qualities to have in a species of fish for beginners because you are likely to make a few mistakes when you are first starting out and it is a good idea to give yourself a little wiggle room.

Feeding Requirements

Though saltwater aquarium fish tend to require more food than freshwater fish to sustain their bodies, that is not the real issue. The real issue with saltwater fish is that they are more likely than freshwater fish to be picky eaters. Many saltwater fish are still live caught which means that they aren’t used to eating frozen or freeze-dried food. If the fish requires live food or some kind of food that isn’t readily available, it may not be a good choice for a beginner.

Price

Generally, saltwater fish are more expensive than freshwater fish and some saltwater fish are just going to be 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):

  Type of Fish
 
  Price
 
Blue Damselfish
 
$4.99
 
Brown Clown Goby
 
$8.99
 
True Percula Clownfish
 
$14.99
 
Neon Blue Goby
 
$18.99
 
Swissguard Basslet
 
$88.99
 
Firefish, Helfrichi
 
$159.99 (and that's on sale!)
 

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?

Even within the same family of marine fish, you'll find a wide range of prices depending on the availability and demand for each kind. For example, looking at Groupers (at the Saltwaterfish.com site),

  Type of Fish
 
 Price
 
Hamlet - Golden (2-3 inches)
 
$49.99
 
Hamlet - Indigo (2-3 inches)
 
$19.99
 

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.
 
Adult Size

The beauty of starting an aquarium is that you can choose any size you want – you do, however, have to consider the fact that the size of your tank will determine the size and number of fish you can keep. First of all, you need to realize that the size of that cute little juvenile fish 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

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 (fish that are comfortable in small areas, anyway). 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

Here is our list of saltwater fish that would be great for the beginner to start with. We've also included some invertebrates to add some diversity to your aquarium. For pricing purposes, we used the LiveAquaria.com site.


Clownfish in the Andaman Coral Reef by Ritiks via Wikimedia Commons

  • 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):


Black Sea Fauna Sea Horse by Florin Dumitrescu via Wikimedia Commons 

  • 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.

How to Choose Saltwater Fish
 
While it can be said that all saltwater fish come from the ocean, it is not quite as simple as that. Some fish come from reef environments while others are native to cooler, deeper waters. In order to ensure peace in your tank it is wise to select species that come from the same area. Not only does this increase the chances that your fish will get along, but it also increases the likelihood of them having similar tank requirements. As it has been mentioned, saltwater fish can be fairly sensitive when it comes to changes in tank parameters so it is best to keep the tank as stable as possible and to cater it to the needs of your fish.
 
In order to choose the fish that are right for your tank, you need to consider all of the factors listed above. Think not only about the price of the fish and how easy it will be to feed, but also the size of the fish and its space requirements. You may find it helpful to select a few of your favorite species and to then make a pros and cons list to narrow down your options. Make sure to prioritize the factors discusses above as well – if price isn’t a problem for you, think more about the size and hardiness of the fish instead. The perfect fish for you will be a species that meets all of your requirements.
 
Choosing your first saltwater fish can be difficult, but you should look at it as a fun opportunity to learn something new. In narrowing down your list of options you will not only learn about a wide variety of fish, but you will also learn about your own preferences as an aquarium hobbyist. This may help you to make decisions in the future regarding how you want to expand or upgrade your tank. 
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