10 Great Saltwater Fish For Those New To The Aquarium Hobby

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Clownfish. Via Ben Popik/Flickr
John Virata

For those new to the saltwater hobby, it is imperative that you do your homework before you decide what kind of fish that you want to acquire. It is best to create a stock list to ensure that what you want won’t fight or bully others that may be on your list. Also, you will want to ensure that they will do well in the aquarium that you’ve set up. While some of these fish may be kept in nano and even pico-sized tanks, the recommendation in this article, and especially for those new to the hobby is to start with a minimum 30 gallon aquarium. When you add live rock and sand, that 30 gallons will be more like 22-25 gallons due to displacement.

The fish on this list are more hardy than others at your local fish store, are less expensive than some of the more exotic species, and more importantly, the majority are captive-bred, either in Florida or Asia. Captive-bred fish are ideal because they have been fed commercially prepared fish foods their entire lives, and are generally free of parasites and other bad things that wild-caught specimens can introduce into your aquarium. When you go to your local fish store, insist on captive-bred fish, and avoid impulse buys of fish that you know nothing about.

The list here represents some of the most popular fish for those new to the hobby, in no particular order. They will all do well in the water parameters of 72-78° F, dKH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1.020-1.025.

1. Blue/Green Chromis (Wild-Caught)

Blue green Chromis are hardy beautiful fish that do well in schools of three or more. Via Citron/Wikipedia

For many, the Blue Green Chromis is the quintessential first saltwater fish. It is a hardy fish that rarely exceeds $5 at your local fish store. It feeds well and can live in a tank of at least 30 gallons. It also does well in shoals of three or more. Although it is a true damselfish, it does not have the characteristic bullying trait of most damselfish available in the hobby. It is native to Indo-Pacific and South Pacific reefs, where its glistening coloration can be seen in huge schools. It grows to a maximum size of about 4 inches and is an omnivore. You can feed it a healthy prepared flake food as well as frozen mysid shrimp and other nutritious offerings. It is a beautiful fish that shines and shimmers and will do well in a tank with similar non-predatory fish.

2. Ocellaris Clownfish (Captive-Bred)

Ocellaris Clownfish ( Amphiprion ocellaris). Via Metatron/Wikipedia

The Ocellaris Clownfish is probably the most popular saltwater fish in the hobby. Captive bred for decades, the Ocellaris Clownfish can be acquired in a variety of colorations, including black and white, snowflake, midnight, and many more ‘designer” colors and variations.

The Ocellaris clownfish grows to about 3 inches in length and requires a minimum 30 gallon tank to do well. Purchase these fish in pairs if you’d like more than one in a tank. They will stay together in the tank and the larger of the two will be the female, and hopefully they will bond. The clownfish is born gender neutral and in the hierarchy of clownfish life, the largest fish will become the female while the male will be smaller. Feed your clownfish a high quality prepared flake or meaty frozen food.
This clownfish is widely captive bred so there is absolutely no reason to acquire a wild caught specimen. Ask you local fish store for captive-bred clownfish.

3. Six Line Wrasse (Wild-Caught)

Six-line Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus hexataenia) Via Brian Gratwicke/Flickr

The six-line wrasse is named as such due to the fact that it sports six horizontal lines along the length its body. it is a popular fish in the hobby due to its inquisitive nature, beautiful color and its propensity to dart about among the rocks in a tank.
The six line wrasse grows to about 3 inches in length and requires a minimum 30 gallon tank to do well. This species needs plenty of hiding places amongst the live rock because unlike most other fish, when this fish goes to sleep, it covers itself in a mucous cocoon to hide its scent from would-be predators.
The six line wrasse is a carnivore, so feed it meaty items like frozen mysid shrimp, freeze dried plankton, and other meaty commercially prepared fish foods.
Keep in mind that the six line wrasse can be semi-aggressive toward other fish, but will seek out and consume flatworms and even small bristle worms that may find their way into your tank.

4. Firefish Goby (Wild-Caught)

Two pair of Nemateleotris magnifica in Fiji. Photo by Bob Fenner

The firefish is one of the most animated fish in the hobby. They have an elongated and slender orange-red body up until the end of their adipose fin, (which stretches from the caudal fin to the dorsal fin) and a long and thin white dorsal fin that looks almost like an antenna coming out of its back. it is a cute little fish that has the capability to stay stationary for a few moments, before it darts back into its hiding spot within the tank. These little guys grow to about 3 inches in length. They do not swim around a whole lot but rather stay safely within the solace of rock caves and other dark places, usually coming out to eat. They require a minimum 10 gallon tank and are very peaceful, except to conspecifics. Feed the firefish meaty items like frozen mysid shrimp, freeze dried plankton, and other meaty commercially prepared fish foods. Sinking foods are ideal because if you have more aggressive eaters in the tank, the fire fish will have a hard time competing with them for food. Also, the fire fish is a known jumper, so it is imperative that they be kept in an aquarium that has a lid.

5. Banggai cardinalfish (Choose Captive-Bred only)

Banggai Cardinalfish. Via Lisa Brewster/Flickr

The Banggai cardinalfish is one of the more interesting fish due to the fact that it had been over harvested for the hobby and has since been declared an endangered species, even though it has been widely bred in captivity. Because of this, always ask your local fish store if their Banggai cardinalfish are wild caught or captive bred. If they are wild caught, feel free to look elsewhere for this beautiful species.
The Banggai cardinalfish is a unique looking fish with a long, scissor-like caudal fin, long adipose and dorsal fins, and a striped almost convict-like coloration on its body. While the stripes on its body are vertical, it does have a horizontal stripe that extends from the tip of its caudal, or tail fin, to the base of the fin where it intersects the body. It has large eyes.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banggai_cardinalfish#/media/File:Pterapogon_kauderni1.JPG
Jens Petersen /Wikipedia

6. Black Neon Dottyback (Captive-Bred)

Black neon dottyback from ORA. Photo courtesy ORA.

The Black Neon Dottyback is a captive bred dotty back from ORA. This semi-aggressive little fish doesn’t any bigger than about 3-inches and can live in a minimum tank size around 30 gallons. The fish is unique in that it is a hybrid between Neon Dottyback and the Springeri Dottyback. A carnivore, feed the Black Neon Dottyback food especially prepared for meat eaters, such as krill, mysid shrimp, and enhanced brine shrimp. You can house the Black Neon Dottyback in a tank with plenty of live rock plenty of caves and other hiding spots. Because they can be aggressive to other Dottybacks, keep them as a single species, unless the tank is very large.

7. Royal Gramma (Wild-Caught)

Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto). Via rian Gratwicke/Wikipedia


The royal gramma has been a staple in the marine aquarium hobby for years. It is a hardy fish with beautiful coloration, as if the tail end of its blurple body has been dipped in yellow paint. The royal gramma does not grow large, but it is an aggressive fish. It will stake a claim in the rock work of a tank and defend that area strongly. It requires a minimum 30 gallon reef tank with plenty of live rock to give it a place to call its own. Feed the royal gramma meaty foods such s mysid shrimp, chopped marine fish, and krill. Commercial foods designed for carnivores are ideal. The royal gramma should be housed alone or with different species with similar temperament.

8. Pajama cardinalfish (Captive-Bred)

The pajama cardinalfish is another popular fish in the aquarium trade. Photo by Aaron Norman


72-78° F, dKH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1.020-1.025
Th pajama cardinalfish is a shoaling species, meaning you can keep more than one in your aquarium. Although they require a minimum 30 gallon aquarium, if you are going to keep these peaceful fish in a school, you are going to need a bigger tank. Feed the pajama cardinalfish meaty foods such as shrimp,mysd shrimp, bloodworms and krill, as they are carnivores. These fish can grow to about 3.5 inches in length. They are striking in coloration. They have a translucent yellowish head, a black stripe that runs vertical from its dorsal fin to its yellow pelvic fin, and a white body with red polka dots from the black stripe to the caudal tail. The pajama cardinalfish is truly a beautiful species.

9. Four Stripe Damselfish (Wild-Caught)

The four stripe damselfish can be a tyrant if it is the first fish introduced into an aquarium. If you wish to keep this fish, make it the fast fish you put in your tank. Via Stan Shebs/Wikipedia


The four stripe damselfish is also known as the Blacktail humbug, probably due in part to its sometimes boorish behavior. Like most damselfish, the four stripe damselfish can be aggressive, not only to smaller fish, but to fish three times its size. As such, it is imperative that this fish be the last fish that is introduced into your aquarium, so it hasn’t established a territory to defend. The four stripe damselfish requires a minimum 30 gallon aquarium with plenty of live rock to swim around in. Four stripe damselfish are opportunistic feeders and will eat both carnivorous and herbivorous commercial foods. They can grow fairly large, up to 4 inches in length, and their striking black and white colorations are beautiful.

10. Neon Goby (Captive-Bred)

Neon Goby (Elacatinus oceanops. Via jmk7/Wikipedia

The neon goby is a beautiful little fish that rarely exceeds 2 inches in length. It is jet black on its sides, with a white belly and purple stripes accenting the black sides. It is known as a cleaner goby, cleaning other fish that seek its services to remove crustaceans and parasites on their skin. Thankfully, this species is widely captive bred and readily eats prepared commercial fish foods. It is not aggressive toward other species of fish, but can show aggression to conspecifics. You can keep two, provided you keep a male and a female. Keep a neon goby with other peaceful species in a minimum 30 gallon aquarium with plenty of live rock with caves so it has a place to retreat. Also be mindful that the neon goby will be bullied by certain dotty backs and wrasses, and of course much bigger fish that will not hesitate to make a meal out of the little fish.

Article Categories:
Saltwater Fish