Reef Safe Saltwater Aquarium Fish

Gobies fish with orange tail and yellow head

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Keeping a "reef tank" means that in addition to the saltwater fish, a variety of corals, anemones and other invertebrates are in the aquarium. Not all marine aquarium fish are "reef safe." Many saltwater fish will tear up corals, consume other fish, and otherwise destroy tank inhabitants. The marine fish species listed below are some generally considered by experienced reef tank keepers to be safe for reef tanks. Keep in mind that nothing is foolproof when it comes to saltwater aquariums and live animals. There are renegades in any species, so if your new tank critter doesn't work out, remove it before it can do serious damage.

  • 01 of 09

    Angelfish (Centropyge)

    Emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) swimming past soft corals (Dendronephthya sp). Egypt, Red Sea.

    Georgette Douwma / Getty Images

    The smaller angelfish species work well in larger reef tanks. However, larger species such as the emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) will eat corals and shrimp and should be avoided. Even the smaller (dwarf) angels will occasionally pick at corals in a small tank unless they are well fed. The beautiful Japanese swallowtail angelfish is one of the few truly reef tank safe angelfish which does not bother corals or other invertebrates. Here are some of the safer angelfish species:

    • Japanese Swallowtail Angelfish (Genicanthus melanospilos)
    • Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosus)
    • Fisher's Angelfish (Centropyge fisheri)
    • Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus)
    • Lemonpeel Angelfish (Centropyge flavissimus)
    • Masked Angelfish (Genicanthus personatus)
    • Multicolor Angelfish (Centropyge multicolor)
    • Orange-lined or Eibl's Angelfish (Centropyge eibli)
  • 02 of 09


    Ocellaris Clownfish and Anemone

    Mikael Kvist/ Moment / Getty Images

    These colorful, gentle, amusing little fish are a favorite reef safe fish. The maroon clown is a possible exception, due to its aggressive behavior and larger size at maturity. Here are some of the best species:

    • False Percula Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)
    • True Percula Clownfish (Amphiprion percula)
    • Tomato Clownfish (Amphiprion frenatus)
    • Clarkii Clownfish (Amphirion clarkii)
    • Fire, Red & Black or Cinnamon Clownfish (Amphiprion melanopus)
    • Pink Skunk Clownfish (Amphiprion perideraion)
    • Saddleback Clownfish (Amphiprion polymnus)
  • 03 of 09

    Dragonettes and Mandarinfish

    The Underwater World of Micronesia, Oceania.
    Giordano Cipriani / Getty Images

    These docile fish can be difficult to keep in an aquarium, due to their specific diet requirements. However, given an ample supply of amphipods and copepods, these fish can do quite well. Here are a couple of good species:

    • Green Mandarinfish (Pterosynchiropis splendidus)
    • Psychedelic Mandarinfish (Synchiropus picturatus)
  • 04 of 09


    Red Fire Dartfish Goby
    Franco Banfi / Getty Images

    Most gobies are great little reef safe fish, however, some species may eat small ornamental crustaceans. Not aggressive in nature, they will consume algae, amphipods, and copepods. Blennies fall into three basic categories: sand sifting gobies, ​​shrimp gobies, and ​small gobies.

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  • 05 of 09

    Sand Sifting Gobies

    Symbiotic between Randalls Prawn-Goby and Pistol Shrimp, Amblyeleotris randalli, Alpheus rapicida, Turtle Cove, Micronesia, Palau
    Reinhard Dirscherl / Getty Images

    Sand sifting gobies plow through the tank substrate, sifting/straining algae, detritus and uneaten food from the sand. This not only removes unwanted nitrate producing substances, it also stirs and aerates the sand (very important for deep sand beds), releasing toxic gases. Here are some of the best species:

    • Diamond Watchman Goby (Valencienna puellaris)
    • Engineer Goby (Pholidichthys leucotaenia)
    • Orangemarked Goby (Amblygobius decussatus)
    • Sleeper Banded Goby (Amblygobius phalaena)
    • Sleeper Blue Dot Goby (Valenciennea sexguttata)
    • Sleeper Railway Glider Goby (Valenciennea helsdingeni)
    • Sleeper Striped Goby (Valenciennea longipinnis)
    • Tiger Watchman Goby (Valencienna wardii)
    • Two Spot Goby (Signigobius biocellatus)
  • 06 of 09

    Shrimp Gobies

    Symbiosis between blind Shrimp, Alpheus sp., and Spotted Shrimp Goby, Amblyeleotris guttata. Shrimp maintains burrow and keeps antenna on Goby to monitor movement as the latter acts as watchdog, Christines Reef, Kimbe Bay, PNG
    Doug Perrine / Getty Images

    Shrimp gobies get their name from their behavior of sharing their burrows in the sand with small shrimp, such as the pistol shrimp. These gobies warn their shrimp roommates (which have poorer eyesight) of approaching danger in time for them both to retreat into their burrow. In return, they share their food with the gobies. Here are some of the best species:

    • Diagonal Bar Prawn Goby (Amblyeleotris diagonalis)
    • Blackray Shrimp Goby (Stonogobiops nematodes)
    • Orange Spotted Goby (Amblyeleotris guttata)
    • Orange Stripe Prawn Goby (Amblyeleotris randalli)
    • Pinkbar Goby (Cryptocentrus aurora)
    • Pink Spotted Watchman Goby (Cryptocentrus leptocephals)
    • Steinitz Goby (Amblyeleotris steinitzi)
    • Wheeler's Watchman Goby (Amblyeleotris wheeleri)
    • Yellow Watchman Goby (Cryptocentrus cinctus)
  • 07 of 09

    Small Gobies

    Purple Fire-goby
    inusuke / Getty Images

    Small gobies are some of the most colorful, entertaining fish in an aquarium. These gobies adapt well to aquarium life and remain small (2 inches and under) even as adults. Here are some of the best reef safe species:

    • Gold Line Goby (Elacatinus horsti)
    • Yellow Clown Goby (Gobiodon okinawae)
    • Panda Clown Goby (Paragobius lacunicolus)
    • Green Clown Goby (Gobiodon atrangulatus)
    • Citrinis Clown Goby (Gobiodon citrinus)
    • Brown Clown Goby (Gobiodon spp.)
    • Black Clown Goby (Gobiodon strangulatus)
    • Cave Transparent Goby (Coryphopterus glaucofrenum)
    • Black Barred Convict Goby (Priolepis nocturnus)
    • Firefish Goby (Nemateleotris magnifica)
    • Purple Coral Goby (Gobiodon unicolor)
  • 08 of 09

    Tangs (Surgeonfish)

    Achilles Tang or Surgeon Fish
    shurub / Getty Images

    Surgeonfish make great reef tank occupants. Being herbivores, they eat only algae, leaving your invertebrates and corals alone. The size to which some tangs grow may cause a problem in smaller tanks, so plan ahead with surgeon fish as you will need a bigger aquarium in the future. Here are some of the best species:

    • Achilles Tang (Acanthurus achilles)
    • Pacific Blue Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus)
    • Blonde Naso Tang (Naso lituratus)
    • Red Sea Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma desjardinii)
    • Clown Surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus)
    • Purple Tang (Zebrasoma xanthurum)
    • Chevron Tang (Ctenochaetus hawaiiensis)
    • Convict Tang (Acanthurus triostegus)
    • Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus)
    • Goldrim Tang (Acanthurus nigricans)
    • Orangebar Tang (Acanthurus olivaceus)
    • Powder Blue Tang (Acanthurus leucosternon)
    • Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma veliferum)
    • Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens)
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  • 09 of 09

    Green Chromis

    Blue Green Chromis in midwater
    Photo by Jonathan Dillman

    The green chromis (Chromis viridis) is a species of damselfish. Individuals tend to be iridescent apple-green and light blue, and reach a maximum length of 4 inches (10 cm). They prefer to be kept in schools of odd numbers. They are non-aggressive to most invertebrates.