I enjoy keeping both saltwater and freshwater fish tanks and sharing my knowledge with other aquarists.
Saltwater aquariums are the pinnacle in home fishkeeping. But which fish should you put in your saltwater tank? Why not do what other people are doing and start out with some of the 10 most popular saltwater fish for home aquariums?
Top 10 Saltwater Fish for Your Tank
- Royal Blue Tang
- Saltwater Angelfish
- Royal Gramma
- Rainbow Basslet
- Electric Blue Damsel
- Yellow Tang
10. Royal Blue Tang
Although it is a very popular saltwater aquarium species, the Royal Blue Tang isn’t actually a tang at all. It is the only member of the Paracanthurus genus of Indian surgeonfish. This fish gained popularity in part from being featured in Finding Nemo. After all, who didn't love Dory?
Royal Blues are great aquarium fish. They don’t eat anemone or corals, feeding on algae and krill for the most part. Royal blue tangs are often labeled as palette fish (fish you add to bring color to the tank) because of the blue and black pattern of their body and bright yellow-streaked tail.
With over 600 varieties of wrasse available in the saltwater fish trade, they were bound to make this list. It's almost not fair to have them on a top 10. They should really get their own list.
Most saltwater aquarists have these smaller fish because of the vibrancy of their colors. They are sometimes referred to as psychedelic fish because of their swirled patterns, which often incorporate two or more colors. They also do quite well in the newer desktop saltwater tanks that have made their way to the market.
Several wrasses are considered cleaner fish that clean parasites off from their tank mates. You must be careful, though, to watch any invertebrates in your tank for skin damage due to the cleaner wrasses. Wrasses are also great reef cleaners and are a mandatory addition to add some color to a reef tank with crevices that other fish can’t get into.
The Blennioideis are unique-looking bottom dwellers that have rounded heads, long eel-like bodies, and two large front dorsal fins that are used like little legs to scurry around the bottom of the tank. They are good reef fish that don’t cause any drama. They are good community fish, and they're really a nice choice for a beginner. They are also very good for initial tank cycling.
7. Saltwater Angelfish
If you are looking for an amazing addition to a saltwater reef tank, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful or graceful fish than a saltwater angel. There are several varieties that range from the relatively bland Blue Angel to the bright Marshall Island Flame Angel and the hypnotic Imperator Angelfish. They range from dwarf varieties (four inches) to large specimens reaching up to nine inches long.
Most Angels will graze on live corals and are recommended only for larger aquariums with lots of live coral. The exception is the Flame Angel, which tends to leave most corals alone and is considered by hobbyists as the only “reef safe” Angelfish. It's also quite beautiful when paired with a Royal Blue Tang and Yellow Butterfly.
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6. Royal Gramma
Royal Grammas are immediately identifiable by their unique coloration. They have a bright purple front and lemon-yellow rear. These small reef fish grow only to about three inches and are great for beginners and in desktop tanks. They are very hardy community fish that have a very peaceful demeanor.
Even though they are great community fish, it is very important to remember that Grammas are very aggressive and territorial to others of their own kind. They should only be kept as a single fish or a mated pair unless you have a tank of 150 gallons or more with adequate reef space for several individuals.
5. Rainbow Basslet
The basslets, including the royal gramma, are small, colorful saltwater aquarium species that stay very small—no more than four inches. They are very territorial, and males of the same coloration should not be kept together because they will fight, often to the death. The basslets are very hardy fish and extremely disease resistant. A great starter, basslets will eat almost any flake food that is provided. They are a bit more sensitive to ammonia spikes and nitrite changes than other starter fish, and because of their feisty nature, they often have nicks on their fins from nipping.
Gobies are very small saltwater aquarium fish that are extremely popular in smaller saltwater setups. They do well in both reef and open water aquariums and are wonderful community fish due to their relatively peaceful nature and small size. They can be aggressive to others of their kind but if they are kept in a one per five-gallon ratio there shouldn’t be any territorial problems.
Gobies are bottom dwellers and spend most of their time either on the reef or a sandy bottom. They have delicate sucker-like dorsal fins and should be kept in a tank with very fine substrate so they don’t cut themselves on sharper rocks. They will eat flake food but prefer frozen brine shrimp or krill. They will not compete for food with more aggressive fish though, and feeding can become a tricky situation if you have many aggressive feeders in the tank.
3. Electric Blue Damsel
Electric Blue Damsel fish are one of the most popular beginner fish when it comes to saltwater aquarium species. It is small, only 3.5 inches, reef-friendly, only semi-aggressive (and due to its small size it doesn’t bother larger fish and usually the only aggression is to smaller species), and is extremely active.
This fish should be kept with only one male with several females to lower the chance for aggression. The female is all blue with translucent fins whereas the male is blue with an orange/yellow tail and bright blue fins. The Blue Damsel is omnivorous and will feed on a variety of flake, frozen, and plant-based foods.
2. Yellow Tang
The Yellow Tang is prized for its daffodil yellow color. This reef and invertebrate-friendly fish thrives as a loner and should not be kept, even in pairs, with others of its kind unless you are keeping them in a 150-gallon or larger aquarium. They are algae eaters by nature but several keepers will feed them flake foods that contain meat.
There is no longer-term research on the health effects of this type of feeding but it is generally better to feed them algae flakes if possible. This beautiful tang will fade in color in the evening often showing a light brown color with a distinct horizontal white stripe. Yellow Tangs do well with almost every other species on this list although they may occasionally nip at the smallest members of the aquarium.
Due to the amazing popularity of Finding Nemo, the clownfish has taken the saltwater aquarium hobby by storm. There are no other saltwater aquarium species that currently outsell it. Although they tend to prefer an anemone in their tank to make their home they can be kept in tanks without them. This reef fish will hide in any of the many crevices in the reef if an anemone isn’t available.
Clownfish come in many colors including red, orange, yellow, and black all with two wavy white vertical stripes down the sides. They are relatively hardy if purchased from an aquarium-bred source while the wild-caught ones don’t do as well due to the stress of moving them. Make sure you check with your source to see if the fish are wild-caught. If so, don't buy them until they have had at least a week to acclimate to the keeper's tanks. If they look good at that point you can purchase them and move them into your own tank.
Daniel Meyers on June 10, 2018:
I love fish.
Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on June 23, 2014:
Great info - makes me want to turn my freshwater 50 gallon into a saltwater all that much more - just can't afford it right now. Beautiful fish!