7 Saltwater Fish For Beginners

If you're new to the marine aquarium hobby, check out these top seven saltwater fish species.

Written by
Gramma loreto

As new aquarists, we have a seemingly endless number of decisions to make when setting up a system including but not limited to tank size, filtration, skimmers, lighting, aquascaping, and eventually livestock. This last part of the aquarium equation can prove to be a rather daunting experience, especially considering the growing number of choices available to us.

When you’re first starting out, some of the main considerations to take into account when deciding on fish are the following:

  • robustness
  • aggression level
  • adult size
  • price
  • sustainability

I could go on and on about each one of these at length, but basically it’s best to purchase fish that aren’t too fragile, are not overly aggressive with other fish, don’t get too big as adults for the tank you currently have, aren’t too expensive, and have either been collected or bred in a sustainable way. This probably all sounds like common sense right now, but as soon as you’re faced with a bonanza of brilliantly colored saltwater fish at your Local Fish Store (LFS), it won’t feel so simple anymore. To try to make these decisions a little less overwhelming, consider these seven saltwater species when you’re starting out.

1. Amphiprion ocellaris, aka Ocellaris Clownfish, Common Clownfish

Amphiprion ocellaris

Amphiprion ocellaris. Photo courtesy of Alex Rose

Clownfish in general are ideal fish for aquariums because they stay small (about 4 inches), occupy a small territory, and are typically mild-mannered, personable and nonaggressive. They can be successfully maintained and bred in aquariums of 10 gallons or more, get along with most tank mates, and while they don’t require anemones for survival, seem to be more content when one is present, at least from my experience. Many clownfish in the trade are captive bred, meaning they have been reared from egg to adult in a captive environment. This is a major plus because they will be adapted to aquarium life, are generally more robust than their wild caught counterparts, and no collection pressure was put on the wild population to obtain them. Go for Nemo!

2. Gramma loreto, aka Royal Gramma

Royal Gramma

Royal Gramma. Photo courtesy of Alex Rose

They are bright, beautiful, and easy to maintain. They only get about 3 inches long and are not picky eaters. They really appreciate caves and other spots to hide and prefer lower light conditions in general. They can be a bit shy, so providing them with places to escape when they need a break greatly increases their quality of life. They can be fairly aggressive towards one another, so I’d recommend only keeping one in a tank.

3. Chromis viridis, aka Blue Green Chromis

Blue Green Chromis

Blue Green Chromis. PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

This is a great fish regardless of your experience level. They’re docile, unlike most species in the damselfish family, and are perfect in community tanks. They don’t bother crustaceans or corals and tend to do extremely well in groups. Schools of these chromis can be a spectacular addition to a peaceful marine system. They’re about four inches long as adults and can easily live for a decade.

4. Elacatinus sp, aka Neon Gobies

Neon Goby Photo courtesy of Alex Rose

These gobies stay small (about 2 inches), are extremely docile, and can coexist with nearly all fish species due to their recognized role as parasite pickers. They generally only show aggression towards members of their own species, so if you want more than one, keep a mated pair or a larger group of 6 or more neon gobies. They have also gained popularity within the nano- and pico-reef community because they are one of few readily available species that can comfortably live in such small systems.

5. Ecsenius midas, aka Midas Blenny

Midas Blenny

Midas Blenny. Photo courtesy of Alex Rose

Blennies in general are good fish for aquarists new to the hobby, but this particular blenny checks all the boxes. It’s peaceful, is a gorgeous golden-yellow color, and doesn’t spend too much of it’s time hidden away. They get a bit ornery when not given enough space, so I’d only recommend a Midas Blenny if you have an aquarium of at least 30 gallons. They are omnivorous, so they require a meatier diet than many other herbivorous blenny species do.

6. Cryptocentrus sp, aka Watchman Gobies

Watchman Goby

Watchman Goby. Zoltan Major/Shutterstock

These fish are fascinating to watch because they spend a good deal of their time reorganizing the substrate in their tank and sifting through it for bits of food they may have missed during meal time. They can be aggressive with each other, so it is best to keep only one or a mated pair. They also need a sandy bottom for burrowing, a varied diet, and an aquarium of no less than 30 gallons.

7. Assessor flavissimus, aka Yellow Assessor

Yellow assessor

Yellow assessor. Via ORA

Assessors may resemble dottybacks, but they have a vastly different temperament and are far less territorial. These small (about 3 inches), attractive, hardy fish make great additions to practically any reef tank of 20 gallons or larger. They are extremely shy fish when initially added to an aquarium and spend much of their time in hiding, but after a few weeks they will readily venture outside of their safe zone and periodically traverse the water column.

And there you have it! There are many other great saltwater fish options out there, but no matter what, make sure you do plenty of research before purchasing any livestock. If you know what you want and can reasonably take care of before walking into your LFS, it will ultimately be a better experience for both you and your fish. The marine aquarium hobby can be extremely rewarding and provides us with the opportunity to learn about and enjoy some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet.

Article Categories:
Fish · Saltwater Fish