Guidelines for Stocking Your Aquarium

Aquarium with blue, orange and blue-striped fish swimming in front of underwater leaves

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Virtually every fish owner has gazed at their aquarium and wondered just how many fish can be put in there. Unfortunately, aquariums don't come with a stocking chart slapped on the side. As a result, many owners unwittingly overstock their tank, sometimes with a disastrous outcome. So how does a fish owner know how many fish they can keep? There are some factors to consider, as well as several methods for calculating safe stocking levels.

One Inch Per Gallon

The most widely known rule for stocking a tank is the one inch of fish per one or two gallons of water rule. While this type of calculation works as a rough estimate, it leaves plenty of room for error. The rule does not take into consideration, modern filtration systems, whether or not you have live plants/proper lighting, and just what kind of fish you wish to keep. Like people, fish are not all the same size and shape. Stocking a ten-gallon tank with ten inches of slender-shaped Zebra Danios is not the same as stocking it with ten inches of full-bodied Goldfish. Larger-bodied fish create far more waste and therefore require more water volume.

Fish also need room to swim, some more than others. Even though the numbers may look good on paper, in reality, the tank may be too small for the fish to move about normally. This is particularly true of active species, as well as schooling species.

This brings up another topic—schooling fish should be kept in multiples, which means more space will be needed. Adding one or two schooling fish will only stress the fish and lead to a shortened lifespan.

Furthermore, the fish often are not fully grown when first brought home. The adorable little catfish that is scarcely an inch long today could reach a half foot in size when it grows up. The true adult size of the fish must be used in the calculation for tank stocking. Many owners, however, have no idea how old their fish is or how large it will grow to be. Before making any fish purchase, always research the fish in question to determine the actual adult size. Many pet shops will have signage on the tanks with information about the fish, including the adult size of the fish and what other types of fish they can be housed with.

Another place for error is assuming the size of the tank is equivalent to the number of gallons of water it holds. A ten-gallon tank filled with gravel, rocks, plants, and an assortment of decorations does not hold ten gallons of water. In reality, the water volume is often ten to fifteen percent less than the size of the tank.

While the one inch of fish per gallon rule is a reasonable yardstick, it has its flaws. To be safe, with big-bodied fish like goldfish and cichlids, one inch of fish per two gallons of water is a safer rule to go by.

Surface Area

The larger the surface area of the water, the greater the oxygen exchange, which in turn supports more fish. Therefore, the surface area of the water directly impacts how many fish can be kept in an aquarium. A tank that is tall and thin may hold the same number of gallons as a tank that is short and wide, yet they have vastly different surface areas.

Using the surface area rule, the shape difference between the tanks is taken into account. The surface area is calculated by multiplying the width times the length of the tank. Under the water surface area rule, the tank can be stocked with one inch of fish for every twelve square inches of surface area.

This calculation, however, has many of the same flaws as the one-inch rule. For instance, it was designed to assume the fish are relatively slender-bodied, which isn't always the case. If wide-bodied fish are kept in the tank, the calculation should be changed to one inch of fish for every twenty inches of surface area.

Like the one-inch rule, the surface area rule isn't perfect. Its primary advantage is that it takes into account unusually shaped aquariums.

illustration of how many fish can fit in an aquarium?

The Spruce / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

Pros and Cons

As a general yardstick for normal situations, the one-inch rule works adequately and is very easy to calculate. If using it, always use net gallons of water, and take into account the adult size as well as the shape of the fish. If the aquarium is a non-standard size, the surface area rule will work better than the standard one-inch rule. In either case, always do your homework first and err on the side of going under the limit rather than over.

Do not fully stock the tank all at one time; no more than 25 percent of the total volume of fish should be introduced to the aquarium at one time. Fish wastes, which are toxic, are eliminated by colonies of beneficial bacteria. Those bacterial colonies need time to adjust to changes in the bio-load. By introducing fish a few at a time, the bacterial colonies have sufficient time to grow and take care of the toxins produced by the fish waste.

Filtration Matters

Lastly, be aware that filtration also plays a large part in how many fish your aquarium will support. Your filter should run four times the total volume of water in the tank through the filter each hour. That means a 10-gallon tank requires at a minimum a filter rated at 40 gallons per hour. If in doubt, go higher, as there is no danger of over-filtering your water.