Beginning Saltwater -- Buying Your Fish
It is easy to make mistakes when setting up your first saltwater
Both for the sake of the fish and your wallet, start with only a few
hardy inexpensive fish. Most marine fish are collected in the wild
rather than captive raised, so your mistakes impact the world's
The best beginner fish for a marine tank are damsels. These fish
very hardy, being able to withstand worse water conditions than
other marine fish, they are not picky eaters, and they are fairly
inexpensive. The down-side is that they are fairly aggressive. One
or two will co-exist in a tank. There will be a lot of fighting if
you put more in. Dealers get away with a lot in their tanks by
keeping the tanks so crowded that none of the fish can establish a
territory. This is not acceptable for long periods of time. It is
best to use damsels to break in a new tank. If you are then going to
add other aggressive fish, you can keep the damsels. If you want to
keep shy or delicate fish, you should take the damsels back to the
store once you and your tank are ready for more fish.
Some damsels, such as the blue damsel and yellow tailed damsels,
are not as aggressive as others, such as the three striped and domino
damsels. In any case, damsels are certainly the best fish to start
Some people like to break in a tank with mollies which have been
acclimated to salt water. This gives you the benefit of starting with
inexpensive fish and get used to maintaining salinity and pH on
not-so-sensitive fish. Although safer, you don't achieve much marine
experience this way. Mollies are captive raised and bred.
If you buy mollies for your saltwater tank, you can acclimate
by dripping saltwater into the bag over a period of 6-8 hours,
removing some water when the bag gets too full. Slowly
increasing the salinity gives the mollies time to get used to their
new environment. You can keep the mollies in the tank after it
cycles, but any aggressive fish with continually harass the passive
Clownfish are related to damsels, and are fairly hardy. However,
are more difficult to acclimate to a new tank. Clowns, in general,
are very territorial, but are not otherwise aggressive except to other
clowns. They will do fine without an anemone, which is good since
anemones are much more difficult to keep. Anemones require very
water and high quality lighting. Also, each species of clown likes
particular species of anemones, and none of them will regularly
inhabit the inexpensive and easier to maintain Caribbean anemones.
Some clowns are captive raised.
These small fish are somewhat hardy and are unlikely to cause
for the other fish in your tank. Some of them show a lot of
personality, though they will get lost in a large tank. Many of these
fish are excellent additions to a tank to help control algae.
However, some feed by sifting through the substrate and will be
hard to keep fed in a fish-only tank (e.g., the mandarin fish).
Tangs are fairly hardy, though they are very susceptible to
ich. Being algae eaters, they are useful to introduce when your tank
starts growing algae. They must be fed leafy greens if there is no
suitable algae growing in the tank (green algae). Many different
tangs are commonly seen for reasonable prices.
If you are setting up a tank for large aggressive fish, you can
start with triggers and/or lionfish, as they are hardy. However,
mistakes with them can be very costly, so you may want to practice
less expensive and easier fish. Also, carnivorous fish such as
triggers and lions should be fed plenty of shell fish and other marine
life. Specifically, many people feed lions feeder goldfish. This is
really a bad practice because goldfish are freshwater fish and do not
provide the same nutrition that a saltwater fish would. Specifically,
feeding saltwater fish freshwater food can cause premature liver
failure and the early demise of your fish.
Angels and Butterflies
These are fish that must be ignored while in the pet store - all
are both delicate and difficult fish to keep. Many butterflies have
specialized diets which make them hard to maintain in captivity.
Batfish are also other fish that should be avoided.
Other saltwater fish which can be attempted once you get good at
controlling the fish's environment are hawkfishes, grammas,
dottybacks, basslets, and wrasses. Some are more difficult to keep
than others, but not nearly as difficult as angles and butterflies.
Fishes to Stay Away From
All angelfish, all butterflyfish, Pipefish, Seahorses, Long-nosed Filefish,
Blue Ribbon Eels, Stonefish, and Moorish Idols. Mandarin fish should
also be avoided in non-reef tanks (they are hard to feed).
Many people believe that invertebrates are only for mini or
micro-reef tanks. Not so. There are quite a few invertebrates that
do well in non-reef tanks. However, not a lot of invertebrates should
be attempted by inexperienced saltwater fish keepers. Below is a
brief summary of the more hardy invertebrates available to
There are many different shrimps available on the market, with
most of them being perfectly suitable for a lightly loaded saltwater
tank. In fact, some shrimps are more suitable for fish and
invertebrate tanks than for a reef tank since they like to eat corals.
Some of the more popular shrimps are Cleaner shrimp
Lysmata amboinensis, Blood shrimp Lysmata debelius,
Candycane or Peppermint shrimp Periclimenes brevcarpalis,
and Coral Banded shrimp Stenopus hispidus. The cleaner
shrimp is denoted by a white on red stripe down the middle of its
back. They are fairly inexpensive and easy to keep. They should,
however, be kept in small groups (3-4), as this makes them more
social and more likely to come out often. The Blood shrimp is
intensely red with some white spots. It is a very striking animal, but
usually commands a high price. The Coral Banded shrimp is very
popular with reef keepers, but must be watched around small fish.
This shrimp has been known to eat small fish without thinking twice.
Most shrimps are scavengers and don't necessarily need to be
fed overtly (they usually eat food dropped by fish). If your
fish your fish consume most of the food before it makes it to the
bottom of the tank, then some extra food should be given to the
shrimps after the fishes have been fed, or at night (most shrimps are
nocturnal). Shrimps readily accept most frozen foods and dried foods
(brine shrimp, flake food, etc.).
Stay away from Harlequin shrimps Hymenocera sp. as
starfish are their only source of food.
There are many different type of crabs, but the most commonly seen
varieties are anemone crabs Neopetrolisthes ohshimia, arrow
crabs Stenorhynchus seticornis, and hermit crabs Dardanus
megistos. Anemone crabs live in anemones, as do clownfish (e.g.,
Sebae), and vary greatly in color and shape. They are usually
acquired indirectly by buying an anemone, but are some times sold
separately. These crabs should have a host anemone to feel
comfortable. Arrow crabs are very interesting animals which
should be kept one to a tank, as they will continually fight. Also,
Arrow crabs should not be kept with Coral Banded Shrimps as they
will fight as well. Hermit crabs are also interesting, and
vary in color and size. Most are passive, butsome will eat corals
and other invertebrates.
Crabs are generally omnivorous and readily accept the same
foods as your fish. Like shrimp, crabs can only eat food which has
made it to the bottom of the tank. Thus, ensure some food is in reach
of your crabs.
Sea Urchins and Starfishes
Most sea urchins and Starfishes are suitable for beginners who have
a few months experience. Once again they vary greatly in size,
shape, and color. Beware, some sea urchins are poisonous. Most sea
urchins and starfish feed on detritus and algae, and small particles of
food that have fallen within their reach.
Simply put, amemones should not be kept by beginners (sorry folks). They
all require very strong lighting and excellent water conditions. Do
not believe a fish store guy that tells you otherwise. Unless you are
willing to invest a lot of money in proper lighting, do not try to
keep an anemone.
Some Notes on Invertebrates
Invertebrates are very sensitive to water quality. Signs of stress due
to poor water quality will usually be exhibited first by
invertebrates. Therefore, shrimps, anemones and other
invertebrates should never be used to cycle a tank. Moreover, you
should never add an invertebrate to a diseased tank or a tank which
does not have stable water quality parameters (e.g., pH, temperature,
Other points to note. Shrimps need iodine to properly molt, as well
as calcium . If you do not change water regularly (which you should),
or if you do not feed live or frozen food frequently, then you may need to
supplement your water with iodine. Without proper levels of iodine,
shrimps will not molt properly and will most likely die.
Also, copper kills invertebrates at much lower concentrations than
fish. If you have ever used copper in your tank, DO NOT
put invertebrates into the tank. You will never be able to adequately
remove all the copper such that you can keep invertebrates alive and
happy. Finally, crabs usually outgrow their shell sooner or later.
Therefore, you will need to provide a new larger shell (they usually
try a few out before sticking with one, so you will probably need at
least a couple).
Invertebrates to Stay Away From
Tridacna clams (they need strong lighting), Flame scallops (they are
nearly impossible to feed in an aquarium as they are filter feeders),
Octopi (they have very short life spans), Nudibranchs (they are
difficult/impossible to feed), any hard or soft coral (they need very
strong lighting), and sea squirts (they can release poisonous toxins
into the water).
Since saltwater fish are usually more expensive than freshwater
fish, you have a great stake in getting them home alive and keeping
them alive for the long term. You must realize that most fish you see
in stores were swimming around the vast ocean a mere week ago.
As such, the stress of capture and transportation can wreak havoc
with the biological processes of the animal.
The most important thing when buying a fish is to not be
by the buying impulse. Before buying any animal, you
ask `Can I keep it happy'. Merely keeping the fish or invertebrate
alive doesn't mean it is happy. Fifty goldfish may live in a 10
gallon tank, but they certainly won't be happy or healthy. Buying a
fish you know nothing about and then asking if you can keep this
happy is a very bad practice. Also, as hard as it is to say this,
don't feel like you are doing a sick fish any favors by taking it
home. If you have the room and time to nurture the sick fish, then I
suggest you help out the environment and care for the sick fish
than letting it die. However, if you are just going to place the fish
into your main tank because you don't have the time or inclination to
set a up a quarantine tank, then don't bother. It will only result in
the death of the fish and the lightening of your wallet.
Once you decide on a particular fish, don't be afraid to ask the
store to hold it for you. A good store will always hold a fish for
you (don't patronize stores that won't!). Also, ask to see the fish
eat. If the fish is healthy and eating, then it most likely is a good
specimen. Finally, check the fish closely for spots, irregular
patches, missing scales, and wounds. Torn fins will usually heal and
are not much of a problem.
Once you get the fish home you should set the bag in the
destination tank, thus allowing the temperature to equalize. After
about a half hour or so, add a 1/4 cup of tank water to the bag.
Repeat this process once every 15 minutes for an hour, removing any
water if the bag gets too full. Any water you remove from the bag
should be disposed of. It will most likely contain parasites and
other bad things.
After you have the fish acclimated to your tank's water chemistry,
there are a couple of things you can do. You can place the fish
directly into the main tank and hope for the best, you can give the
fish a freshwater dip and then place it into the tank, or you could
place the fish into a quarantine tank.
The best scenario is to give the fish a freshwater dip and place it
into a quarantine tank. Keep the fish in the quarantine tank for 2
weeks and watch for signs of disease. If the fish gets sick, you can
medicate the quarantine tank without affecting the chemistry of the
main tank. If you are going to quarantine the fish, you should
acclimate the fish to the quarantine tank's chemistry, not the main
If you don't use a quarantine tank, then it is a very good idea to
give the fish a freshwater bath before placing it into your main tank.
The freshwater bath will cause any parasites attached onto the fish
let go and remain in the freshwater (to die a lonely death).
Otherwise, parasites left to their own will reproduce very rapidly in captivity and usually infect all the fish in the tank.
To give a marine fish a freshwater dip, prepare a container of
dechlorinated freshwater with a similar chemistry of the destination
tank. That is, make sure the pH and temperature are as close as
possible to the destination tank (this is critical!) . Remove the
fish from the bag and place the fish into the container for 3 to 5
minutes. Watch the fish closely for signs of stress. If the fish
stops moving or begins to float, remove it immediately and place it in
the destination tank (either the main or quarantine tank).
In placing the fish into the freshwater bath, never pour the fish
into the container. Use a tupperware container or a net to capture
the fish and place it into the dip. The store water should
never be introduced to the freshwater bath, or any of your
tanks. This water usually contains all sorts of nasty diseases and
If you put the fish into the main tank and it comes down with an
illness, it should be removed to a quarantine tank
immediately. Do not risk spreading the illness to the other
fish in the tank (although it may already be too late).
Some more information on setting up a
quarantine tank can be found in the