Saltwater Fish Compatibility

Saltwater aquarium fish are undoubtedly more colorful than their freshwater counterparts.  However, they are also more expensive and are usually wild caught.  For these reasons it is absolutely imperative you do as much research as possible BEFORE you buy any saltwater fish.  Do not make any impulse buys and do not trust the local fish store guy.  He might be well intentioned and knowledgeable but he’s not responsible for the final decision, you are.  Trusting a misguided source is responsible for many a poor fish purchase.  Most saltwater aquarium fish are NOT compatible with most others and you really have to carefully plan it ahead of time.  Do NOT make ANY purchases based on appearances or impulse.  We don’t generally recommend keeping fish that are described as “possibly” reef safe or reef compatible “with caution” in a reef tank as they will inevitably pick at or knock over a prized coral at some point.  However, some of the hardier mushroom and soft corals might be more compatible with some of those types of fish.

Before you decide to start a saltwater aquarium be very aware that it will likely cost 3 to 4 times more than a freshwater aquarium and the monthly maintenance costs will be several times higher than a freshwater aquarium as well.  Whereas a 40 gallon freshwater system might cost $500-$800 to establish and $20-$30 and take a few hours a month to maintain the saltwater version of that will run $1500-$2500 and up to $60-120 and require several more hours a month to adequately maintain.  An Aquaripure Nitrate Removal Denitrator will greatly reduce the time and maintenance costs of a saltwater system but the saltwater aquarium will still be significantly more expensive and time consuming when compared to a freshwater system.

There are a few great websites that sell saltwater fish online and they are great resources for learning about specific species of fish such as  LiveAquaria.com   We get paid absolutely nothing for saying this, they are simply a great resource.  Read every detail about any fish you are thinking about repeatedly and seriously consider how it will fit in with the rest of your tank and your objectives.

Some options as far as types of saltwater aquarium fish tanks are:

  1. Passive Reef Safe (schooling or non schooling)
  2. Passive Schooling Non Reef or Partial Reef
  3. Small Semi-aggressive Reef Safe
  4. Mid Size Non-Reef or Partial Reef
  5. Larger Semi Aggressive Non Reef or Partial Reef
  6. Species Specific Tanks
  7. Large Predatory Fish Only with Live Rock

By “partial reef” we mean a few mushroom or soft corals that do not require intense lighting and are less likely to be picked at by coral picking fish.  You can learn more about the different types of Saltwater Aquariums and Coral Aquariums by visiting their respective pages.  Think about if you want a specific type of coral or fish the most because chances are it will limit and define the other animals in your aquarium.

⇐Types of Saltwater Aquariums       Coral Aquarium⇒

Having said this, we can use our many years of experience to definitely add to the species specific information for saltwater aquarium fish provided elsewhere.  We will list the saltwater aquarium fish in order of general suitability and appeal for the widest range of saltwater aquariums to the more specific and challenging species of fish.

Types of Saltwater Aquarium Fish

Clownfish

ClownfishClownfish are an extreme popular saltwater aquarium fish, popularized by the movie “Finding Nemo.”  The great thing about them is they are often tank bred now.  This means you don’t have to worry about making a negative footprint on nature when you buy one.  They are not usually aggressive and are a great fish to have in almost any tank.   The only exception would be in tanks with large predatory fish that can fit a clownfish in their mouth.  Some of the larger species can be more aggressive so be sure you read about the specific characteristics of the individual species you get.  They generally get along with more passive fish and can hold their own with more assertive fish.  They will often make a home out of some species of anemones.  They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

Hawkfish

hawkfishHawkfish are a great saltwater aquarium fish for many tanks.  They generally get along great with everyone and don’t harass anyone.  Tangs are like this as well.  They are a little bigger than clownfish but great for many different sized aquariums except for nano tanks. They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

Tangs/Filefish

Yellow-Tang-FishTangs and Filefish are a great saltwater aquarium fish for many tanks.  They generally get along great with everyone and don’t harass anyone.  They are a little bigger than the other fish reviewed so far and need at least a 55 gallon tank.  Some of the larger species need an even bigger tank.  Tangs absolutely require a consistent source of seaweed and seaweed sheets work well for this.  You will need to tie it to a rock or weight in the tank or you need to consistently provide a frozen food that contains seaweed.  They are generally considered a  reef safe fish.

The Matted Filefish is a great fish to get to rid your tank of the dreaded pest Aiptasia anemones.  In fact, in our experience, it is the only reliable solution to the little pest anemones.  It’s not the prettiest fish in the ocean but it’s usefulness and personality make up for that in spades.

Bass(lets)/Blennies/Firefish/Dartfish/Jawfish

firefishOk, these are all completely different species of saltwater aquarium fish.  However, they are all similarly small sized and generally peaceful and can be kept alone.  These make them all perfect for a peaceful community or schooling tank.  They should not be kept with more aggressive fish, even damsels.  These are all great for nano saltwater tanks as well.  They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

Cardinalfish

cardinalfishCardinalfish are a passive schooling saltwater aquarium fish.  You should only get them if you want a passive schooling aquarium free of any more aggressive fish.  They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

 

Chromis

chromisChromis are another passive schooling saltwater aquarium fish.  You should only get them if you want a passive schooling aquarium free of any possible aggressive fish.  They look just like Damsels but their personalities couldn’t possible be more different! They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

Damselfish

Yellow_Tail_Blue_DamselDamselfish are the Chihuahua/pit bull mix of saltwater aquarium fish.  Their personality is truly obnoxious and aggressive for a little fish.  If you get some it will actually severely limit the other fish you will be able to keep in the tank because of this.  They will usually kill any more passive fish pretty quickly but can usually be kept with clownfish, tangs, dottybacks and other fish who can defend themselves or be assertive when they need to be. They are a reef safe fish.

Dottybacks

dottybackDottybacks are similar in appearance and size to Bass(lets)/Blennies/Firefish but have a slightly more aggressive reputation and can hold their own with somewhat aggressive fish like Damsels.  You still don’t want to put one with a predatory fish that could eat it however. They are a reef safe saltwater aquarium fish.

Wrasse

wrasseThere are a wide variety of wrasses that come in many different sizes and have a wide variety of temperaments.  Some are peaceful and others are more aggressive.  Some are small and others are quite large.  Some are reef safe and many are not.  The point is that before you purchase ANY wrasse, look up the exact species online and read everything you can about it before deciding whether or not it will be compatible with your aquarium!

Goby/Dragonettes

gobyGobies and Dragonettes are small sized and peaceful saltwater aquarium fish and can be kept alone.  These make them all perfect for a peaceful community or schooling tank.  However, they like to feed on copepods and microfauna in the aquarium and so should only be added to a mature tank with a lot of live rock with a mature microfauna population.  They should not be kept with more aggressive fish, even damsels.  These are good for nano saltwater tanks as long as they are mature.  They are a reef safe fish.

Dwarf Angelfish

dwarf angelDwarf Angelfish are a peaceful saltwater aquarium fish but can hold their own with more aggressive fish as long as the other fish can’t fit them in their mouth.  They definitely need a food with some algae and spirulina and some sponge or coral protein in it.  They won’t do will just being fed brine shrimp.  They do better in a mature tank with a lot of live rock.  You should have at least a 55 gallon aquarium and these are not good for nano tanks.  Unfortunately, they will pick at corals and we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums as they will nip at clams and most corals.

Angelfish

Angelfish are a large peaceful saltwater aquarium fish but can hold their own with more aggressive fish as long as the other fish can’t fit them in their mouth.  They definitely need a food with some algae and spirulina and some sponge or coral protein in it.  They won’t do will just being fed brine shrimp.  They do better in a mature tank with a lot of live rock.  This means you should have a tank up for about a year before you add one to the system.  You should have at least a 200 gallon aquarium and these are not good for smaller tanks.  Unfortunately, they will pick at corals and we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums as they will nip at clams and most corals.

Butterflyfish

butterflyfishButterflyfish are a larger peaceful saltwater aquarium fish but can hold their own with more aggressive fish as long as the other fish can’t fit them in their mouth.  They definitely need a food with some algae and spirulina and some sponge or coral protein in it.  They won’t do will just being fed brine shrimp.  They do better in a mature tank with a lot of live rock.  This means you should have a tank up for about a year before you add one to the system.  You should have at least a 120 gallon aquarium and these are not good for smaller tanks.  Unfortunately, they will pick at corals and we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums as they will nip at clams and most corals.

Foxface/Rabbitfish

foxfaceFoxface/Rabbitfish are a larger peaceful saltwater aquarium fish but can hold their own with more aggressive fish as long as the other fish can’t fit them in their mouth.  They are similar in requirements to Butterflyfish.  They definitely need a food with some algae and spirulina and some sponge or coral protein in it.  They won’t do will just being fed brine shrimp.  They do better in a mature tank with a lot of live rock.  This means you should have a tank up for about a year before you add one to the system.  You should have at least a 90 gallon aquarium and these are not good for smaller tanks.  Unfortunately, they will pick at corals and we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums as they will nip at clams and most corals.

Boxfish/Pufferfish

Puffer FishBoxfish and Pufferfish are generally large semi-aggressive predatory saltwater aquarium fish.  Their appeal is their wonderful and inquisitive personality but they definitely require special care.  The smaller ones such as the “Valentini” puffer will be ok in a 55-100 gallon aquarium but others like the porcupine puffer grow quite large and will need a tank at least 180 gallons in size.  They don’t really eat corals but need to regularly be feed snails and crabs to keep their teeth down along with a lot of other meaty foods.  Generally, they are better for fish only systems or fish only with live rock.  They are likely to knock corals over if it suits them.   They can poison a tank if they die in the system or are killed by another fish.  Unfortunately, for this reason we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums except for maybe a partial reef tank.

Triggerfish

triggerfishTriggerfish are large aggressive predatory saltwater aquarium fish.  Even smaller ones will grow quite large and need a tank at least 180 gallons in size.  They don’t really eat corals but need to regularly be feed snails and crabs to keep their teeth down along with a lot of other meaty foods.  Generally, they are better for fish only systems or fish only with live rock.  They are likely to knock corals over if it suits them.   Unfortunately, for this reason we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums except for maybe a partial reef tank.

Groupers

humpbackgrouperGroupers are large aggressive predatory saltwater aquarium fish.  Even the “mini” grouper is quite large and needs a tank at least 200 gallons in size.  They don’t really eat corals but will eat any smaller animals that it can fit in it’s mouth which limits it’s tank mates.  Generally, they are better for fish only system for fish only with live rock.  They are likely to knock corals over if it suits them.   Unfortunately, for this reason we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums except for maybe a partial reef tank.

Eels

moray-eelEels are large aggressive predatory saltwater aquarium fish.  Even the small snowflake eel is larger than most people realize and needs a tank at least 75 gallons in size and the bigger ones really should have a 150 gallon tank.  They don’t eat corals but will eat any smaller animals that it can fit in it’s mouth which limits it’s tank mates.  Generally, they are better for fish only system for fish only with live rock.  They are likely to knock corals over if it suits them.   Unfortunately, for this reason we can’t recommend them for most reef aquariums except for maybe a partial reef tank.

Hogfish

hogfishThere are several different species of hogfish, some are smaller and reef safe.  However, others are larger, more aggressive and NOT reef safe at all.  Like the wrasse, study the specific species BEFORE you purchase any hogfish.

 

Lionfish

lion-fishThe dwarf species of lionfish can be kept in a tank as small as 55 gallons but the other species need at least a 120 gallon aquarium.  They are all predatory aggressive fish and will eat pretty much any other animal it can put in it’s mouth and swallow.  You want to be careful when handling them as their spines can inflict a painful sting.  They don’t eat coral but as with other large predatory fish they generally don’t really make for the best fish in a reef aquarium although some types of corals might be suitable.

Squirrelfish/Anthias

anthiasThese two saltwater aquarium fish species are different species but similar medium sized peaceful schooling fish.  Because they are mid sized schooling fish they need a fairly good size aquarium at least 70 gallons or so.  They are both completely reef safe but prefer low light.  So if kept in a reef system with a lot of light you really need to make sure they have plenty of shaded areas in the system or they will not be comfortable.  Be sure to read up on their more specific requirements before purchasing.  These do NOT make for a good impulse purchase and have some fairly specific condition requirements.

Seahorse/Pipefish

seahorseSeahorses and Pipefish are wonderful fish that can be kept in smaller saltwater tanks as small as 30 gallons.  However, they require fairly low water flow as they are not strong swimmers.  They are a reef safe fish but it is a challenge as they do not like strong water movement.  They should only be kept with the most passive of fish or only with their own species.  They do well in small groups and mated pairs are adorable.  They also prefer to feed on copepods in the tank and so need a lot of mature live rock with a good microfauna population.  You might need to restock the microfauna regularly to ensure an adequate supply.  You can also supplement their diet with baby brine shrimp but you don’t want to depend only on that.  They should NOT be bought on impulse and require a lot of specific planning and care.

Sharks

Shark BAMBOO 2There are only a few species of sharks available and they all require extremely large aquariums (300 gallons or so) that should only have fine sand on the bottom and nothing else.  This really limits any possible tank mates and you will basically have one large tank with one big shark in it.  It might be possible to keep a puffer or lionfish with a shark but the tank will otherwise be bare.  Just make sure that’s what you want or forget about a shark tank as cool as it may sound.  They are definitely not for any reef aquarium or even any aquarium with any rocks.

You may come across a few different types of saltwater aquarium fish not mentioned here … if so research thoroughly BEFORE buying!

⇐Types of Saltwater Aquariums       Coral Aquarium⇒

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