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Don’t Be Salty: The Keys to Owning Saltwater Fish

Keeping saltwater fish has become a popular hobby. Aquarium enthusiasts have long had a large variety of freshwater fish from which to choose. Now, more sophisticated equipment and an ever-increasing knowledge-base has made it possible for the hobbyist to keep a wider variety of marine animals in a home aquarium.

Beautiful as they are, saltwater fish come to us at a price. At this time, the vast majority of saltwater fish and “live rock” are collected and shipped from the wild.

The process of collecting these animals is not always done in an environmentally friendly way. Cyanide, dynamite,and other destructive methods are commonly used on reefs to stun the fish to make them easier to catch. Many are killed, and reefs are often destroyed in the process. A reef is a living community that can take 50 to 100 years to establish, so once destroyed, it is not readily replaced.

Fortunately, some suppliers are changing the ways fish can be made available. There are certain species of fish that can be successfully bred in captivity- Damselfish are one example. A population of these fish can be supplied without having to take them from the wild. Some suppliers are now forming artificial reef, starting with bare rock and letting it be naturally-colonized so it can be harvested without reef destruction.

So, if you do the appropriate research and know what you’re getting into, owning saltwater fish can be a wonderful experience.

Here’s what you need to know.

Life Expectancy

Saltwater fish tend to be more difficult to keep in captivity, but if you provide them with the best possible environment (perfect water quality, excellent diet, and appropriate tank size) some saltwater fish can live for many years. Most published information about the life span of saltwater fish is from public aquariums where the fish are kept in the best possible conditions. Many saltwater fish succumb to illness early in life due to poor husbandry.

Some saltwater species only live an average of 2 to 4 years. These include butterfly fish, mandarins, Moorish idols, gobies, blennies, wrasses, damselfish, squirrelfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, and tangs. Most small tropical seahorses that are available for aquariums live about 3 to 4 years. The larger seahorses can live longer, but are rarely available for the home aquarium.

A few of the more hardy species can live up to and over 10 years, including lionfish, clownfish, eels, and groupers. There are many varieties of angelfish and some can live quite a long time. The Queen angelfish, French angelfish, and gray angelfish can live up to 20 years but grow to a large adult size. For this reason, few mature adult angelfish are kept in captivity for as long as 20 years.


Marine fish are a varied bunch. Each species or type has its own method of feeding — some filter feed, drawing in water and siphoning out the food from it, and some scavenge; others prefer to chase their meal or eat only greens; many just don’t care what drops in — they’ll eat it.

Some species are aggressive eaters, chasing away their tank mates, while others shy away from conflict. Feeding fish, unfortunately, isn’t just a matter of dumping a pinch of flakes into the tank. It is important that you know what sort of food to feed your community and make sure that you take care of everybody’s dietary needs.

The common problems are feeding too much or too little, usually with the latter being the case. Overfeeding poisons the water, so try to observe how much your fish eat and don’t throw in too much food at once. You can always add a little more later. However, don’t throw in so little food that the dominant fish always wins out.

Choosing the Right Fish

Before you get any fish for your tank, do a little research to know what sort of aquarium environment you’d like to have, the kinds of fish that go together, and the way they behave.

Go to the pet store with an idea of what kind of fish you want instead of blindly buying anything that “looks nice.” This is especially important if you are planning to keep several species. You shouldn’t add a triggerfish until the very end, for example, because they are highly territorial and will consider your entire tank their own if you add them first. Also, make sure you know the food and water requirements of the species in which you are interested.

Plan for your fish to grow. If you buy a juvenile of a species and don’t know how large it can get, it could outgrow your tank.

If this is your first saltwater tank, stick to just fish at first. Good fish for beginning tanks are damselfish, gobies and blennies, basslets, some cardinalfish, and surgeonfish. Invertebrate reef creatures such as starfish, shrimp, or crabs are a little more difficult to care for in general and are better kept once you have some experience under your belt.

Know which fish are difficult to care for and stay away from them. Moorish idols, ribbon eels, polyp-eating butterflyfish, sponge-eating angelfish, parasite-eating cleaner wrasses, and fish that have unique environmental needs or picky eating requirements pose problems even for professional aquarists.

Maintaining Your Aquarium

Although many freshwater fish-keepers may disagree, saltwater tanks require a little extra attention to maintain water quality.

There’s a lot to keep in mind so it’s a good idea to start by keeping a calendar or notebook to track what you’ve done, especially for procedures that need to be performed only occasionally. It’s also important to note water quality, what you add to your tank and how much (including brand name and manufacturer), as well as anything out of the ordinary. This way, you have a record that may help you predict a potential problem or allow you to backtrack to figure out what may have happened if something goes wrong.

There are things you need to do daily, every other day, weekly, every two weeks, monthly, every three months, and every six months.This guide will show you what you need to do regularly to keep your tank in shape.

A Final Note on Finding Dory

One of the most popular Disney•Pixar movies, 2003’s Finding Nemo, didn’t just wow movie-goers, it also inspired hundreds of people to go out and get their own “Nemo,” the titular orange clownfish. As sales of clownfish went through the roof, concern grew that the clownfish population would be depleted. Luckily, scientists found a way to breed clownfish in captivity, and disaster was averted.

Fast forward 13 years and we’re facing a similar issue. Finding Nemo‘s sequel, Finding Dory, is out in theaters, and now people are clamoring to have their own, “Dory,” the titular blue tang fish.

The only problem is, scientists haven’t figured out how to breed the blue tang in captivity like they did with the clownfish, so, once again, population depletion is a major concern.

If demand for the blue tang doesn’t grow large enough to significantly impact populations of the fish in the ocean, adopting one won’t be an issue. Still, it is something to keep in mind when choosing a fish.

Resources for Owning Saltwater Fish

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