Best Fish to Start a Saltwater Tank

Good fish to start your saltwater aquarium are tolerant of other fish species, resilient and are sized to fit your fish tank. Our expert advice will help you select the best fish to create your perfect home aquarium.

The best fish to start a saltwater tank should be non-aggressive hardy fish species that contribute to the aquarium ecosystem and require similar water conditions, food and habitat. The best fish to start your saltwater aquarium are Angelfish, Yellow, Blue and Naso Tang, Auriga and Raccoon Butterflyfish, Gobies, Wrasses, Yellowtail and Blue Green Damselfish, Ocellaris and True Percula Clownfish, Lawnmower Blenny, Shrimp and Crabs.

Starting and maintaining a saltwater tank requires more planning, money, patience and water testing than a freshwater tank. After your water chemistry and tank environment is established your selection of fish will determine the success of your aquarium. To help you get started please see our article on How to Maintain Salinity in a Saltwater Aquarium.

What to Expect After Adding New Fish to Your Aquarium?

Regular saltwater tests, water chemistry changes, water changes and tank cleaning are essential maintenance routines for a healthy aquarium. Saltwater chemistry is a skill that will become second nature to you fairly quickly. To help you establish the skills necessary for a successful tank please see our article, How to Test the Water in an Aquarium. The most significant challenge is establishing fish compatibility in your aquarium. Refer to the saltwater aquarium fish compatibility chart below to refine your choices of life in your aquarium.

We have found that even the best compatibility research doesn’t prove to be 100% accurate all of the time. Sometimes you will find fish that the research shows to be non-aggressive and docile fish that will chase or nip at each other in your tank. Sometimes you will find aggressive fish to be tolerant of other fish in the aquarium or a new disease starts to spread.

Stress is the leading cause of fish quality-of-life degradation. Stress usually comes from recent changes to your aquarium such as less than ideal water or bacterial conditions, recent incompatible fish additions, poor lighting, sick or dying fish, over-crowding or inappropriately sized fish for your tank size. If you have any issues with sickly fish please see our article, How to Diagnose Fish Disease. Sometimes even after all the aquarium conditions are perfect, fish don’t always behave the same way that observational science dictates, in other words they have their own personalities that are sometimes different from what the books say they should be.

Most of the fish in our list of best fish to start your saltwater tank are very hardy fish. They are fairly forgiving of beginner mistakes and will teach you a lot about advancing your fish expertise. However, when evaluating which hardy fish to start your saltwater tank with you should also consider:

  • The size it grows to as an adult should be accommodating to your sized tank
  • The species of community fish should be compatible with the other fish in your tank without any aggression. Again, see the saltwater aquarium fish compatibility chart below.
  • Adding coral, plants and decoration displace livable tank space so approximate the space taken up by these additions and subtract them from the total tank size to adjust your calculations for total fish occupancy.

Take a closer look at the saltwater fish we recommend for your starter tank.

  1. The colorful coral beauty angelfish (aka the two-spined angelfish) is a dwarf angelfish that adjusts easily to aquarium life. This is a very popular fish due to its brilliant colors, hardiness, low price, and ready availability. This fish is normally not as aggressive as many other angelfish, but some individual specimens may be territorial in smaller aquariums where they have had time to establish their boundaries.
  1. Yellow Tang are one of the most popular saltwater aquarium fish. This fish gets along well with most other fish in an aquarium but may show aggressive towards other surgeonfish and yellow tangs if they are not introduced into the aquarium at the same time.
  1. Blue Tangs are recognized as the fish “Dory” in the movie “Finding Nemo”. Juveniles should be introduced to the tank at the same time and will likely swim together in groups, but as adults they will fight unless ample shelter and swimming room are provided. Like most surgeonfish blue tangs are prone to contracting the fish disease, ich, and is susceptible to head and lateral line erosion.
  1. Naso Tang is a fish which, once adjusted to aquarium life can be trained to eat food right out of your hand. It will generally get along with other fish tank mates but is known to be one of the more aggressive surgeonfish species when it comes to territorial disputes with other surgeonfish. You can reduce this potential with lots of room to swim.
  1. The Auriga Butterflyfish (aka cross-stripe or threadfin butterflyfish) is a friendly and fairly docile fish if placed into a tank with non-aggressive fish and lots of hiding places.
  1. The Raccoon Butterflyfish is also called the lunule or crescent-masked butterflyfish. Like it’s cousin, the auriga butterflyfish, a major hurdle for this fish is to get it to eat prepared foods. Feeding them frozen mysis shrimp is a great way to help them get started.
  1. Gobies are a relatively small species of fish (usually no larger than 3 inches) and available in a variety of colors. Excellent fish for cleaning the bottom of your tank from unwanted waste and debries they are rarely aggressive towards other fish species; they are territorial and will fight with others of the same species unless they are a mated pair. Goby fish are also known for jump out of a tank, so a lid is recommended. Our recommended favorites are below.
  • Sleeper-Banded Goby uses shallow burrows in the substrate as a refuge, keeping the substrate well oxygenated.
  • The pink-spotted watchman goby (also known as the Sigapore Shrimp) requires a 30-gallon or larger aquarium with plenty of loose coral rubble, ample swimming room, and a sand bottom for burrowing.
  1. Wrasses are beautiful fish with colors not seen in many of the other fish species. Wrasses are a non-aggressive species larger than other fish in our list and prefer live food. These fish commonly bury itself in the sand when frightened or while sleeping at night for protection. Our recommended favorites are below.
  • The Ornate Wrasse (aka the Christmas Wrasse). Distinctive for their stunning coloration, the beautifully ornamented Christmas wrasse from Fiji is also known in the fish trade as the red-lined or biocellate wrasse. It can be a threat to fan worms, small hermit crabs, snails, and ornamental shrimp.
  • The four-lined wrasse thrive in tanks populated with larger non-aggressive fish but may act aggressively toward more peaceful wrasses and other small fish. These beautiful fish are known for spending a lot of its time hiding and foraging for small snails, worms, and crustacean in the live rock.
  1. Blennies are entertaining fish with voracious appetites eating just about anything you drop in the tank. They are a bit shy needing plenty of hiding places.
  1. Damselfish are great for beginners because they’re small (for the most part under 3″ in tanks although some species will get up to 8″), readily available, inexpensive and hardy. Available in vibrant electric blue and striped colors they are very popular among aquarium owners. They can be aggressive towards other fish in the tank so please refer to the saltwater fish compatibility chart. Our recommended favorites are below.
  • Blue Green Reef Chromis (Blue Green Damselfish) are a non-aggressive fish who readily eats tank foods making it a great saltwater starter fish.
  • The yellowtail damselfish are and beautifully colorful fish and unlike other damselfish, it usually leaves corals or other invertebrates alone and readily eats tank fed foods.
  1. Ocellaris Clownfish (aka known as the false percula clownfish or common clownfish) are from the same family as damselfish and enjoy basically the same ease of care as damselfish. Clownfish are known to seldom stray from its established territorial area. The ocellaris clownfish, is one of the most popular and arguably one of the easiest marine fish to have in an aquarium. Tank raised specimens are fairly easy to find and, if a young pair is purchased, they will easily become a mated pair, without much of the mating ritual abuse experienced with other species of clownfish.
  1. True Percula Clownfish is one of the most popular and arguably one of the easiest marine fish to keep in an aquarium. The black and white Darwin variation of the percula clownfish are found in the wild only in the waters near Darwin, Australia.  Their beautiful colors and likable personalities make them a wonderful addition to reef aquariums.
  1. Lawnmower Blenny (also known as the algae blenny, jeweled rockskipper blenny, sailfin blenny, and rock blenny) is an excellent algae eater. New saltwater aquarium tanks tend to grow a lot of algae as the nitrate levels rise and the blenny is an excellent choice for maintaining your aquarium.
  1. Shrimp provide many benefits to aquarium life. For example, cleaner shrimp will eat parasites off of fish as well as clean your substrate, plants and decorations. They are relatively hardy but you’ll need to watch copper and nitrate levels.
  1. Crabs are a great invertebrate choice for a beginner’s saltwater tank. Choices include hermit crabs, arrow crabs, and porcelain crabs.

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