Populating your first saltwater aquarium can be quite a challenge. You do not want to buy a fish that will be too difficult to maintain, and you likely do not want lackluster fish that won't be fun to watch. To help you populate your new tank with beautiful beginner fish, which will make your new hobby an instant success, we have highlighted some easy-to-care-for fish that you can be proud to have in your aquarium.
A saltwater aquarium fish compatibility chart will give you an idea of which fish may have a better chance of existing together in a small space. In many cases, the chart indicates which will coexist with a certain amount of caution. Nothing is guaranteed. There will always be exceptions to any generalization, but the chart will give you a place to start when you are trying to figure out what species of fish will work in your aquarium.
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Ocellaris Clownfish (False Percula Clownfish)
The ocellaris clownfish, also known as the false percula clownfish or common clownfish, is one of the most popular and arguably one of the easiest marine fish to have in an aquarium.
One peculiarity of this clownfish is that, even when placed in a large aquarium, once it has established its territory, it will seldom stray from that area. If it makes its home in one corner of a four-foot-wide tank, it will rarely be seen at the other end of the tank.
Tank-raised specimens (highly recommended) of this species are fairly easy to find and, if a young pair is purchased, they will easily become a mated pair, without much of the mating ritual abuse experienced with other species of clownfish. Also, being tank-raised, they are accustomed to eating hand-fed foods and acclimate very well.
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Coral Beauty Angelfish (Two-Spined Angelfish)
The colorful coral beauty angelfish, also commonly called the two-spined angelfish, is a popular dwarf angelfish that acclimates easily to aquarium life. It is a favorite species for aquariums due to its brilliant colors, hardiness, low price, and ready availability. This fish is normally not as aggressive as many other angelfish, but some individual specimens may be territorial in smaller aquariums, particularly if they have been in the tank for a while.
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Flame Angelfish (Japanese Pygmy Angelfish)
The flame angelfish also called a Japanese pygmy angelfish, is considered one of the best choices for aquariums because it usually adapts well to captivity. It is best kept singly, or in mated pairs, with other less-aggressive fish.
Although touted to be a fairly good reef-safe fish, it may nip at large polyped stony corals, zoanthids, tridacnid clam mantles, and even some soft coral polyps. Therefore, this fish cannot be completely trusted if these invertebrates are present.
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Lawnmower Blenny (Jeweled Rockskipper)
The lawnmower blenny is also known as the algae blenny, jeweled rockskipper blenny, sailfin blenny, and rock blenny. This blenny is a great algae eater which is a benefit to any saltwater aquarium. New tanks tend to grow a lot of algae as the nitrate levels rise. The lawnmower blenny helps keep the algae, particularly green hair algae, in check as the tank matures.Continue to 5 of 28 below.
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Auriga Butterflyfish (Threadfin Butterflyfish)
The auriga butterflyfish is also called the threadfin or cross-stripe butterflyfish. This butterflyfish is one of the easier ones to keep. Given plenty of places to hide, it will settle right into an aquarium with other non-aggressive fish.
The major hurdle for this fish is to get it to eat prepared fish foods. It is important to observe the fish eating before buying it. Offering the fish frozen mysis shrimp seems to help them get started. Also, if other fish in the tank are eating certain foods, the auriga seems to pick up on the fact that the food is edible.
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Raccoon Butterflyfish (Crescent-Masked Butterflyfish)
The raccoon butterflyfish is also called the crescent-masked or lunule butterflyfish. This butterflyfish is one of the easier ones to keep. Given plenty of places to hide, it will settle right into a non-aggressive tank.
Like its cousin, the auriga butterflyfish, a major hurdle for this fish is to get it to eat prepared foods. Observe the fish eating in a tank before buying it. Frozen mysis shrimp is a good go-to for feeding in the tank.
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True Percula Clownfish (Clown Anemonefish)
The true percula clownfish is one of the most popular and arguably one of the easiest marine fish to keep in an aquarium. The black and white Darwin variation of the percula clownfish are found in the wild only in the waters near Darwin, Australia.
The ocellaris clownfish is often confused with the percula clownfish. Unless you are experienced with both fish, they are difficult to tell apart. The true percula is very bright orange, whereas the ocellaris tends to be more drably colored. The percula clownfish also has a thicker black outline to its white body stripes. Their beautiful colors and likable personalities make them a wonderful addition to reef aquariums.
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Blue Green Reef Chromis (Blue Green Damselfish)
Even though the blue-green reef chromis belongs to the damselfish family, unlike its damselfish cousins, it seems to get along with almost any non-aggressive fish. It also does not bother corals or other invertebrates. The blue-green chromis readily eats tank foods and adapts to tank life very well.Continue to 9 of 28 below.
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Yellowtail Damselfish (Yellowtail Demoiselle)
The yellowtail damselfish seems to get along with most non-aggressive fish. The yellowtail damselfish is a favorite of aquarium hobbyists since it is extremely hardy and gorgeously colored. Unlike other damselfish, it usually leaves corals or other invertebrates alone. The yellowtail damselfish readily eats tank-fed foods and adapts to tank life very well.
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Firefish Goby (Fire Dartfish)
The firefish goby is a very docile fish. It should be kept singly unless the aquarium is very large, or it is put into the tank as part of a mated pair. This fish is very timid and will not come out of hiding unless it feels secure. The firefish is also known to leap from a tank when startled, so a covered tank is best.
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Orange-Spotted Goby (Spotted Prawn Goby)
The orange-spotted goby spends its time gobbling sand and spitting it out through its gills, sifting food as it goes. This is a great little sand sifter that will keep your substrate free of uneaten food and other debris. Its diet should be supplemented with a variety of live and frozen brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, live black worms, and prepared foods for carnivores.
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Sleeper-Banded Goby (Bullet Goby)
The sleeper-banded goby uses shallow burrows in the substrate as a refuge, keeping the substrate well oxygenated. It is rarely aggressive towards other fish. However, it is territorial and will fight with others of the same species unless they are a mated pair. Like most gobies, this fish is known to jump out of uncovered aquariums.Continue to 13 of 28 below.
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Diamond Watchman Goby (Pretty Prawn)
Like other gobies, the diamond watchman goby or watchman goby stirs the sand as it sifts through it, straining out food. These fish will typically clean out the sand bed, removing any microfauna, copepods, and other small organisms. While the diamond watchman goby is peaceful and should not harm any other fish, they can become territorial when encountering similar sand sifters.
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Pink Spotted Watchman Goby (Singapore Shrimp)
The pink-spotted watchman goby spends its time sifting sand to remove small food particles. It requires a 30-gallon or larger aquarium with plenty of loose coral rubble, ample swimming room, and a sand bottom for burrowing.
Rarely aggressive towards other fish species, it is territorial and will fight with others of the same species unless they are a mated pair. This goby will also jump out of a tank, so a tight-fitting lid is recommended.
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Yellow Watchman Goby (Yellow Prawn Goby)
The yellow watchman goby or yellow prawn goby is the most often purchased shrimp goby for aquariums. This species adapts well to aquarium life and has even spawned in reef aquariums. Only male-female yellow shrimp goby pairs should be put in the same (especially small) tank as these gobies will attack other shrimp gobies.
This fish should be fed a variety of foods, including fresh or frozen mysid shrimp, enriched brine shrimp, finely chopped table shrimp, and frozen foods for carnivores. This fish should be fed at least twice per day.
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Flame Hawkfish (Brilliant Red Hawkfish)
This flame hawkfish's vibrant red color, personable nature, and small size make it a highly sought after specimen by hobbyists. However, like most hawkfish, it is a predatory bottom-dweller. It likes to sit on top of rocks or corals to keep watch, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey that swims too close. In a reef tank, this fish will most likely take up residence in a hard coral head, perching on top when at ease, and darting down inside the coral head when threatened. It may also take up refuge next to the base or under the tentacles of a large magnificent/ritteri anemone.
The flame hawkfish gets along fairly well with other fish but may act aggressively towards other bottom-dwelling species. In a small aquarium this may present a problem, so either avoid other bottom-dwellers or provide this fish with plenty of room and hiding places to ease territorial conflicts.Continue to 17 of 28 below.
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While the longnose hawkfish is a great mini-aquarium candidate, it will occasionally eat ornamental shrimp and may attack other fish with elongated bodies like firefish and dart gobies. It will also eat just about any other fish that will fit into its mouth.
The longnose hawkfish can be kept in male and female pairs but should be introduced to the aquarium at the same time. This fish is well known for jumping out of uncovered tanks, so cover your tank with a canopy.
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Volitan Lionfish (Common Lionfish)
The volitan lionfish is also known as the common lionfish. It prefers to spend most of its time swimming in the open. It is quite long-lived and grows large (up to 15 inches), so it should have a large aquarium. This fish will consume small fish and shrimp (whatever it can fit in its mouth), so its tankmates should be a larger size than it is.
The fin spines of the volitan contain a powerful toxin that can cause a very painful sting, possibly fatal if you are allergic. Handle this fish with great caution, as it can sting through nets, plastic bags, and even gloves. It should be noted that if the volitan does sting another fish in its tank, the venom released into the water can be fatal to other fish and invertebrates. While a beautiful and hardy fish, it does have a high risk due to the venomous spines.
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Blue Tang (Palette Surgeonfish)
Commonly recognized as the fish "Dory" in the movie "Finding Nemo," the blue tang is not overly aggressive towards other tank mates but may become boisterous in the community. Juveniles can be kept together in groups, but adults will fight unless ample shelter and a swimming room are provided. This species is prone to contracting the fish disease, ich, and is susceptible to head and lateral line erosion like most surgeonfish are.
Unlike most tangs or surgeonfish that require a steady diet of algae, the Pacific blue tang should also be fed meaty fares to satisfy its zooplankton dietary needs. Finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp, mysid shrimp, and brine shrimp are acceptable, as well as preparations for herbivores, such as nori (dried seaweed).
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Yellow Tang (Yellow Surgeonfish)
The yellow tang is one of the most popular fish for a saltwater aquarium. In general, this fish gets along well with other fish in an aquarium, but it can be aggressive towards other yellow tangs and surgeonfish if they are not introduced into the aquarium at the same time. If your tank size allows you to include several of these fish, you will be entertained by their lazy "follow the leader" patterns in and through your tank's rock structures.Continue to 21 of 28 below.
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Naso Tang (Orangespine Unicornfish)
The naso tang is a fish that, once adjusted to aquarium life, has a great personality. It can be trained to eat the food right out of your hand. It is one of the more aggressive surgeonfish species when it comes to territorial disputes with other surgeonfish, especially of its own kind, but generally will get along with other fish tank mates and invertebrates. It is interesting that they will attack each other in an aquarium considering that in the wild they tend to congregate in small groups or schools.
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Kole Yellow Eye Tang (Striped Bristletooth)
The kole yellow eye tang spends its day constantly grazing and eating, so provide it with an environment that has plenty of algae. However, do not put one in a small reef tank, as it can do a lot of damage if you have delicate plants and algae growth that you want to keep. In a very large reef tank, the plant growth can recover, as the kole has so much to pick from. The kole tang adapts to tank food well. It likes nori (dried seaweed), flake foods made from dried marine algae, and will nibble on some meaty foods like dried shrimp and bloodworms.
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Niger Triggerfish (Redtooth Trigger)
In the wild, each Niger triggerfish has its own house to live in as part of the coral and rock formations just outside the reef. They emerge and congregate near the surface of the water in large schools to feed on zooplankton and algae drifting in the current. In a closed environment with other Niger triggerfish, they will bite and attack each other. This is a fish that can be aggressive towards more docile fish and tank inhabitants.
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The bird wrasse is a hardy wrasse that adapts rather well to aquarium life. Only one male should be kept in an aquarium. A mating pair could be added to the aquarium at the same time. Males are green colored, and females are brown colored.
This wrasse can become aggressive toward other tank mates, especially smaller fishes, and in particular, avoid housing with small elongate-shaped species, as in all likelihood, they will be eaten.
This wrasse does not bury in the sand to sleep at night but will lay on top of the substrate or take refuge in rocks. It is a flighty fish that will leap out of an open aquarium, is constantly on the move, and needs lots of swimming room.Continue to 25 of 28 below.
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Eight-Lined Wrasse (Eight-Stripe Wrasse)
The eight-lined wrasse is shy at first, but once it gets used to being in an aquarium, it becomes bolder and will take food out of your hand. The eight-lined wrasse, so named for the eight stripes along the sides of its body, likes to hide, so be sure to give it plenty of cover.
Like most wrasses, the eight-lined wrasse likes to burrow under the sand or substrate in your tank as a means of sleeping and protection. Be sure to keep the substrate clean. It is a fish that can pick up bacterial diseases, both internal and external, easily.
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The four-lined wrasse is a smaller species, which does better in a less belligerent tank but may act aggressively toward more peaceful wrasses and other small fish. Given the right cover, it will spend a lot of its time hiding and foraging for small snails, worms, and crustaceans in the live rock.
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Elegant Wrasse (Sand-Reef Wrasse)
The elegant wrasse is shy at first, but can eventually warm up to you. The elegant wrasse should be fed a diet of meaty foods, including mysid shrimp, finely chopped seafood, and enriched frozen foods. It should be fed twice per day.
Like most wrasses, the elegant wrasse likes to burrow under the sand or substrate in your tank as a means of sleeping and protection. Keep the sand clean for them. Wrasses can pick up internal and external bacterial diseases easily.
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Ornate Wrasse (Christmas Wrasse)
As with most wrasses, the ornate wrasse buries itself in the sand when frightened or while sleeping at night for protection. Distinctive for their stunning coloration, the beautifully ornamented Christmas wrasse from Fiji is also known in the fish trade as the red-lined or biocellate wrasse. It is a non-aggressive species that is compatible with other fish and is safe with corals but can be a threat to fan worms, small hermit crabs, snails, and ornamental shrimp.
Stamper MA, Kittell MM, Patel EE, Corwin AL. Effects of full-stream carbon filtration on the development of head and lateral line erosion syndrome (HLLES) in ocean surgeon. J Aquat Anim Health. vol. 23, no. 3, 2012. doi:10.1080/08997659.2011.608608
Bacterial Diseases in Aquaculture. Merck Veterinary Manual.