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Related Articles: Avoiding Bad Choices: Saltwater Animals That Are Commonly Offered in the Trade That Shouldn't Be, and Suggested Alternatives, by Bob Fenner,  Collecting Marines, Marine Livestock Selection, Reef Livestock Selection, Quarantine, Quarantine of Corals and Invertebrates, Acclimation, Acclimating InvertebratesMarine Life Use in Ornamental Aquatics

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Top 5 Marine Fishes for Beginners
(& what setups they require to thrive)


by Bob Fenner  


            What makes a fish one of the best choices for new saltwater aquarists? Beauty in terms of color, markings and behavior certainly; along with aquarium hardiness and suitability in the way of prepared foods acceptance and disease resistance. Of the few thousand species offered in our interest there are some resounding “duds”, but thankfully on the other end of the scale are others that are real winners. Here is a brief listing of my top five.

            I hasten to mention that there is a strong inclination to direct you to captive-produced, versus wild-collected specimens. These are far superior in adapting readily to aquarium life, having known it their entire lives; as well as readily eating easily obtained prepared commercial foods… And, aquacultured specimens are initially healthier and lack pathogenic diseases. The super-bonus of choosing cultured livestock is realized in its being much less aggressive, territorial; getting along with other stock you’ll be placing.

            Onto my take on top five beginner marine fishes:

1.      Nemo! Amphiprion ocellaris, the most common and hardiest Clownfish of course.

Here’s a whole bunch of Nemos at an IMAC show years back in the ProAquatix booth. And below that two of the many sport mutations of A. ocellaris available nowayears: A “naked” and “black” Ocellaris. Neat eh? And there are MANY more varieties to choose amongst. Clownfishes are the archetypal marines; recognized everywhere, they frequently have trouble adjusting to captivity when collected from the wild. All Clowns are found in close association (symbiosis) with one of several large Anemones; and they get very stressed when parted. Not to worry though with aquacultured specimens. These don’t require their stinging-celled hosts and are so domesticated that they do well in a wide-range of conditions.


     Besides being the darlings of Disney pix; the smaller cultured Clown species are a delight to keep; being fine housed in ten gallons when small, twice that as a couple/pair as adults, to much more if being housed with other species of fishes; to grant them all room. As in the movie, one individual out of the two or more you have will “turn into” a female with time, growing decidedly larger and a bit more agonistic than the smaller (male/s). This fish greedily accepts all types of foods, and unless you introduce it to wild pathogens, should remain biological disease free. The smaller Clownfish species are best kept with other easygoing fishes and invertebrates; like gobies, blennies, small cardinalfishes, and gentler wrasses.


2.      Gobiosoma Cleaner Goby, Gobiosoma oceanops (and other cleaner goby species!).

These little chubsters are not only cute to observe as they dart about pose on your corals and rock, but they do double-duty as biological cleaners, helping other fishes to keep clean of dead skin and parasites, greatly reducing stress. Do look for specifically labeled “tank raised” specimens, as this fish is also wild-collected. Below; a couple in Key Largo, FLA, and one giving an expensive Butterflyfish a once over at friend Rob Bray’s “House of Fins” in CT.

     Cleaner gobies can be housed by themselves, but they’re much more fun to watch when kept with other peaceful fishes. This being stated, the system size you’ll need will be dictated by the needs of these “others”. A pair of Gobiosoma or Elacatinus species by themselves can be housed in a ten gallon system. Though they will eat dried foods in all formats; flake, pellet, extruded sticks and wafers, these fish need to be offered either live or frozen/defrosted meaty foods on a daily basis to do well. Cleaner gobies can be kept with almost all other fish life; even large basses, wrasses, puffers and triggerfishes recognize them as helpers, rather than food items. I would not trust lionfishes, piscivorous morays or frogfishes however… these might easily cross the line and inhale such small fishes.


3.      Watchman Goby, Cryptocentrus cinctus (plus others!)

This is one of several species of “Shrimp Gobies” that form mutually beneficial relations with different species of Pistol Shrimps in the wild (and captivity if you’d like to match them). Females are bluish in base color, whereas males are yellowish.

     These fish need a good deal of uncrowded bottom space, at least two square feet per individual. Do take care when placing any solid décor as it may well be underminded by this fish’s prodigious digging. For substrate, a mix of finer and coarser material is useful to provide structure for their burrows as well as mouthfuls of digging pleasure. Some folks even place short sections of PVC pipe under rocks where they hope their Cryptocentrus will take up residence. Shrimp gobies are generally fine with all types of livestock; leaving snails and crustaceans alone, and fishes with mouths not large enough to inhale them reciprocating.


    4. The Orchid Dottyback, Pseudochromis fridmani

Some wild Dottyback species can be too territorial for home-hobbyist use; but this Red Sea endemic (only found there) is on the far end of the families agonistic scale; particularly where one has the sense to purchase captive-produced animals. Fridman’s or the Orchid Dottyback is available most everywhere all times of the year; being successfully aquacultured for the ornamental trade. There are a handful of other Pseudochromid species that are also captive-produced, but make sure to check out their temperament ahead of investing in them. Some are quite “mean”.

     Dottybacks need structure they can get into and hide behind to feel comfortable; and a complete top to avoid them leaving your tank! A singleton can be kept in as little as a ten gallon system; though larger is better, particularly if you intend to keep more than one. This fish readily accepts all foods, but should have some meaty component daily. Dottybacks are quick and smart fishes; and get along with most everything with the exception of other fish species that occupy similar rock-dwelling niches. Leave out grammas, basslets and such in their systems.


    5. The Yellowstripe Cardinalfish, Ostorhinchus (formerly Apogon) cyanosoma.

Though not as popular (yet!) as other Cardinals like the Pyjama and Banggai; the Yellowstripe is a much better choice; staying small (usually about two inches max.) and being MUCH more peaceful amongst themselves in a school. Below a male with a mouthful of young in Bali, Indonesia. This Cardinal is available more and more from US aquaculture firms and will soon be about in larger numbers from international culturists.


Cardinalfishes, especially captive-produced specimens, are ready feeders on dried-pelleted and frozen-defrosted prepared foods. They get along with all types of livestock that gets along with them; leaving corals and their allies be. Best kept in small schools of 5 or more individuals, they hang around in mid-water, usually facing into your system water flow. This small species is able to be housed in volumes of a few tens of gallons, but I recommend at least a forty gallon tank for housing a small school. Cardinalfishes are like so much aqua-popcorn in the worlds tropical reefs; the usual suspects; lions, basses of size, triggers et al. will inhale them if they can fit in their mouths, attack them otherwise. Hence they should be stocked with life that gets along peaceably; small damsels, basslets, gobies, blennies and such.


Common Habitats:

            A few useful notes regarding the general parameters required for keeping the above species healthy long term. Though I’ve mentioned and remarked that they are exceptionally hardy species, doubly so from being bred successive generations in captivity; they too require good, clean water and otherwise acceptable conditions to thrive.

            Tank size and shape is of extreme importance. Do purchase as large a system as practical; the bigger the better in terms of avoiding troubles and granting you the most possibilities in terms of stocking and aquascaping. Smaller systems vacillate easily if power or gear outages occur, foods, medications and supplements are mis-applied. Measure for the maximum dimensions system you can fit.

Water quality, lighting, circulation…. Need to be stable and optimized. Metabolites, easily measured using Nitrate (NO3) as your guide, should be kept under 20 ppm; really less than 10 ppm. This can be accomplished through simple prudence in stocking, set up (e.g. skimming) and feeding, along w/ regular maintenance; in particular frequent, partial water changes (a fifth to a quarter of the system water switched out for new weekly).

Lighting that is not too intense suits these fishes; no need for “blasting” them as with small polyp stony corals; though they can be kept together, given provision of caves, overhangs in your décor that provide optional shade. The use of timers on your lighting equipment is strongly advised; eight to ten hours per day is about right, and you can certainly schedule this time for when you’ll be about; leaving the lights off mid-day if so desired.

Circulation cures many potential ills: promoting gaseous exchange, moving particulates about for their easy removal via filtration, providing exercise-currents for your livestock. Best to have a good “five, ten turns” (the volume recirculated in your system multiplied) per hour, provided by powerheads, submersible pumps, mechanical bubblers.

These are all tropical shallow water, reef fish species, requiring warm water in the mid-seventies to low eighties F. on a consistent basis. To avoid possibly heater troubles, you’re encouraged to use two heaters of moderate wattage to maintain system heat.



Yes to there being MANY more great first fish choices for beginning marine enthusiasts; it’s up to you to look around, investigate the possibilities for your particular set up; keeping in mind the ultimate size, compatibility and nutritional requirements of your potential acquisitions.

            These “top five” fishes represent the best that our hobby has to offer; being all aquacultured and widely available. They’re hardy, adaptable to aquarium conditions, and very easygoing in terms of getting along with other fish and non-fish livestock.

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