What makes a fish a good choice for new saltwater aquarists? Beauty in terms of color, markings and behavior, certainly, but the fish must also be hardy, resist disease and accept prepared foods. Of the few thousand species available, there are some best left on the reef, but thankfully, on the other end of the scale are others that are real winners.
I’m inclined to direct you toward captive-bred species rather than wild-collected specimens. These are far superior in adapting readily to aquarium life, having known it their entire lives. They are also already eating commercial foods. In addition, aquacultured specimens are initially healthier and lack pathogenic diseases. The super-bonus of choosing cultured livestock is that it is much less aggressive and territorial. Aquacultured livestock tends to get along better with other stock you’ll be placing in the tank.
Here are my top five.
1. Nemo! The Common Clownfish
Amphiprion ocellaris is the hardiest clownfish. Recognized everywhere, the common clownfish is the archetypal marine fish, but take care to select those bred in captivity. Wild-caught specimens have trouble adjusting to captivity and can come with ailments or develop them due to stress. Captive-bred fish are already adapted and readily available in the hobby. All clowns are found in close association (symbiosis) with one of several large anemones, and they get very stressed when parted. This is not a worry, however, 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.
2. Gobiosoma Cleaner Goby
Gobiosoma oceanops (and other cleaner goby species) are not only cute to observe as they dart about and pose on your corals and rock, but they also do double-duty as biological cleaners, helping other fish to keep clean of dead skin and parasites, greatly reducing stress. Look for tank-raised specimens, as this fish is also commonly collected from the wild.
Cleaner gobies can be housed by themselves, but they’re much more fun to watch when kept with other peaceful fish. 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 10-gallon system. Although 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 triggerfish recognize them as helpers rather than food items. I would not trust lionfish, piscivorous morays or frogfish, however, as these might easily cross the line and inhale such small fish.
3. Watchman Goby
Cryptocentrus cinctus 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 a yellowish color.
These fish need a good deal of uncrowded bottom space, at least 2 square feet per individual. Do take care when placing any solid décor, as it may well be undermined 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; they leave snails and crustaceans alone, and they are good with other fish that do not have mouths large enough to eat them.
4. The Orchid Dottyback
Some wild dottyback species can be too territorial for home hobbyist use, but the Red-Sea-endemic orchid dottyback (Pseudochromis fridmani) is on the lower end of the family’s antagonistic scale, especially those that are captive-produced. The orchid dottyback, also called Friedman’s dottyback, is aquacultured for the ornamental trade and available most everywhere throughout the year. There are a handful of other Pseudochromid species that are also captive-produced, but make sure to check out their temperament before investing in them. Some are quite “mean.”
Dottybacks need structures that they can get into and hide behind to feel safe. They also require a secure top to prevent them from leaping out of the tank. A single fish can be kept in as little as a 10-gallon system, but bigger is better, particularly if you intend to keep more than one. This fish readily accepts all foods, but it should have some meaty component daily. Dottybacks are quick, smart fish that get along with most everything except other species that occupy similar rock-dwelling niches. Leave out grammas, basslets and such for a tank containing dottybacks.
5. The Yellowstripe Cardinalfish
Although not as popular (yet!) as the pajama and Banggai cardinalfish, the yellowstripe cardinalfish (Ostorhinchus [Apogon] cyanosoma) is a much better choice. It stays small (usually about 2 inches max) and is more peaceful among others in a school. This cardinal is available more and more from U.S. aquaculture firms and will soon be in larger numbers from international aquaculturists as well.
Cardinalfish, 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. They are best kept in small schools of five or more individuals. They hang around in mid-water, usually facing into your system’s water flow.
Although they can be housed in a smaller aquarium, I recommend at least a 40-gallon tank for housing a small school of three to five fish. Number really depends on the species, as some, such as Banggais and pyjamas, are too territorial. Be careful when selecting tankmakes. The usual suspects—lions, basses of size, triggers, etc.—will inhale them if they can fit in their mouths, or attack them otherwise. Stock cardinalfish with life that gets along peaceably, such as small damsels, basslets, gobies and blennies.
Marine Aquarium Fish Habitats
A few useful notes regarding the general parameters required for keeping the aforementioned species healthy. Although I’ve remarked that they are all exceptionally hardy, doubly so from being bred successive generations in captivity, they still require clean water and optimal conditions in order to thrive.
Tank size and shape are of extreme importance. Purchase as large a system as is practical; the bigger the better in terms of avoiding trouble and granting you more options in terms of stocking and aquascaping. Smaller systems vacillate easily if power or gear outages occur or if foods, medications and supplements are misapplied. Measure for the maximum system you can fit.
Water quality, lighting and circulation need to be stable and optimized. Metabolites, easily measured using nitrate (NO3) as your guide, should be kept below 20 ppm (really, less than 10 ppm). This can be accomplished through simple prudence in stocking, setup (e.g. skimming) and feeding, along with regular maintenance, especially frequent partial water changes (a fifth to a quarter of the system water switched out for new water weekly).
Lighting that is not too intense suits these fish. No need to “blast” them like you would small-polyp stony corals; however, the fish can be kept with corals, given provision of caves and overhangs in your décor to provide shade. The use of timers on your lighting equipment is strongly advised. Eight to 10 hours per day is about right, and you can certainly schedule this time for when you’ll be present, 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 and providing exercise currents for your livestock. Best to have the entire volume of a system recirculated every 60 minutes via powerheads, submersible pumps and mechanical bubblers.
These are all tropical shallow-water reef fish, requiring warm water in the mid-70 to low 80 degrees Fahrenheit on a consistent basis. To avoid heater trouble (and water temperature fluctuation), use two heaters of moderate wattage to the maintain system.
Choose Captive-Bred Saltwater Fish
There are many more great first fish choices for beginning marine enthusiasts. It’s up to you to look around, investigate the possibilities for your particular setup and keep in mind the ultimate size, compatibility and nutritional requirements of your potential acquisitions.
These “top five” fish represent the best that our hobby has to offer. They are all aquacultured and widely available. They’re also hardy, adaptable to aquarium conditions and easygoing in terms of getting along with other fish and non-fish livestock. As always, for the best results, do your research first and offer the fish in your care the best possible environment.
Bob Fenner is an earnest petfish ichthyologist and content provider in the aquarium and related dive/travel/adventure genres. He lives most of the time in Southern California, where he gardens and cooks, serves meals for Hash House Harrier groups and friends. You can reach via WetWebMedia.com.